Harpers Ferry, located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, is the easternmost place in West Virginia and at 247 feet the lowest point in the state. Originally called Peter’s Hole, Robert Harper had settled there by the 1740s and operated the ferry which gave the place its new name.
Flooding was a common occurrence in this narrow gorge through South Mountain. The first known flood was in 1748 when the flooding drove Robert Harper from his cabin. Other floods followed in 1810, 1843, 1870, 1889, and 1896. The worst known flood was on March 19, 1936, when the Potomac crested at a record 36.5 feet, more than 18 feet above flood stage.
Water power, however, also attracted people and made the town into a 19th-century industrial center. The U.S. Armory and Arsenal was established at Harpers Ferry in 1799. Inventor John H. Hall pioneered the first successful application of interchangeable firearms manufacture for his breechloading rifle at nearby Hall’s Rifle Works between 1820 and 1840. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad arrived at Harpers Ferry in 1834, and the Winchester & Potomac opened a line to Virginius Island there in 1836.
John Brown, an abolitionist determined to free the slaves, decided to raid Harpers Ferry because of the arsenal, which could be used in arming the slaves. His attack was carried out on October 16, 1859, and all his men were killed or captured. Brown was tried at nearby Charles Town for treason and hanged on December 2, 1859. This trial focused the nation’s attention on the moral issue of slavery and helped head the country toward war. Because of the town’s strategic importance on the B&O at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, it changed hands many times during the Civil War. In September 1862, Stonewall Jackson accepted the surrender of more than 12,500 federal troops at Harpers Ferry, the largest surrender of U.S. forces until World War II.
After the war Freewill Baptist missionaries from New England acquired several buildings on Camp Hill and on October 2, 1867, started Storer College. The college was designed primarily to educate former slaves but was open to students of all races and both genders. It was one of the earliest integrated schools in the country. Storer College closed in 1955, and today the National Park Service uses part of the old campus as a training facility.
By the 20th century, Harpers Ferry was sliding into obscurity. It was saved by its history. In 1944, the lower town became a unit of the National Park Service, which would eventually help put Harpers Ferry back on the national map. The site was a gift from the state of West Virginia, and by the 1960s Harpers Ferry National Historical Park began restoration of historic buildings. An economic boost was given to the town in 1970 when the National Park Service opened the Harpers Ferry Center, an interpretative services center serving Park Service units nationwide. The Harpers Ferry Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The community, the National Park Service, and others working together for historical preservation and heritage tourism have made Harpers Ferry a quality place to live and one of the nation’s premier destinations for history-minded tourists. The 2010 population of Harpers Ferry was 286.
Read the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Harpers Ferry Historic District.
This Article was written by W. Eugene Cox
Last Revised on January 28, 2013