The easternmost three counties of West Virginia are closer to the nation’s capital than the state capital, making the area ideal for a weekend getaway from many East Coast cities. Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties feature sites on the George Washington Heritage Trail, the Civil War Discovery Trail, the C&O Canal and the Appalachian Trail. The area is largely rural but cosmopolitan enough to host two annual theater festivals: the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University and the New Voice Play Festival at the Old Opera House Theatre Company in Charles Town. The quaint small towns offer numerous places to shop, eat, and sleep.
And yes, George Washington did sleep here. A young Washington helped survey the holdings of Thomas Lord Fairfax. Washington bought land in the area and encouraged his family to do so. Charles Town was founded by Washington’s brother, Charles, and present-day Jefferson County has six Washington family houses, including Charles’ home, called Happy Retreat.
The Washington Heritage Trail (guides are available online at www.WashingtonHeritageTrail.org or at any Eastern Panhandle visitor’s center) is a 136-mile route connecting about 50 sites in Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan counties. One of the most unusual is in Berkeley Springs State Park, which the guide says has “the only outdoor monument to presidential bathing.” A stone tub dug into a hillside represents what colonial-era visitors would have used to soak in the warm natural spring water. The town of Bath was established in 1776 and later renamed Berkeley Springs. Visitors today can wade in the water along the west wall of the park in the heart of downtown. An annual celebration is held in mid-March to commemorate Washington’s first visit in 1748.
Berkeley Springs also has its own castle. Begun in 1885 as a private home, Berkeley Castle remains a private residence. Just outside of Berkeley Springs, the 6,000-acre Cacapon Resort State Park has a lodge, golf, lake, and hiking trails.
Morgan County also is home to the Paw Paw Tunnel, a highlight of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which runs along the length of the Eastern Panhandle border with Maryland and Pennsylvania. It took workers 14 years to carve the 3,118-foot tunnel that allowed the canal to bypass several sharp Potomac River bends. The tunnel is open to walkers and cyclists. Rangers lead guided tours on summer weekends. The canal from the mouth of Rock Creek in Washington D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, was built between 1828 and 1850. (www.nps.gov/choh or www.canaltrust.org).
The Eastern Panhandle also includes Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 28,000-acre preserve that straddles the Morgan-Berkeley county line. The area allows hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, camping and boating. Call 304-822-3551 for more information.
Like Morgan County, Berkeley County has been the site of many historic events. The county has more than 3,000 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the most historic towns is Bunker Hill. Morgan Morgan, traditionally considered the first white settler in what is now West Virginia, is memorialized with a monument in Bunker Hill State Park and a marker on his nearby grave. Morgan’s 1730s cabin (restored in 1976) is now a museum open to the public on weekends from May to October. The cabin is on State Route 26, 3.5 miles off U.S. Route 11 in Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill’s Mill Creek Historic District also has a gristmill, built in 1738 and rebuilt in 1890, that contains 19th and 20th century milling equipment. It is the only mill in West Virginia that has dual water wheels. Bunker Hill’s Christ Church was the first Episcopal Church in what is now West Virginia.
Other Berkeley County historic towns include Darkesville, which was established in 1791; Falling Waters, site of two Civil War battles; Gerrardstown, designed in 1784 and the site of the first Baptist Church west of the Blue Ridge Mountains; and Hedgesville, laid out in 1832. Darkesville, Gerrardstown, and Hedgesville are designated as National Historic Districts.
A highlight of any trip to Eastern Panhandle is a stop in Martinsburg, the county seat of Berkeley County. The town is easily accessible from Interstate 81, and it has a passenger rail station served by Amtrak and MARC. Martinsburg changed hands more than 50 times in the Civil War because of its importance as a railroad hub. Confederate troops burned the Baltimore & Ohio Roundhouse in Martinsburg in 1862, but it was rebuilt in 1865. It is now being restored.
The Martinsburg home of Confederate spy (later actress) Belle Boyd is a museum. Her house is a stop on the Civil War Discovery Trail. Visitors also can see the home of Adam Stephen, the Scottish doctor who founded Martinsburg in 1770. Next door is the Triple Brick Museum. Built in 1874, it housed railroad workers passing through town and is now a museum of the cultural life of Martinsburg from the 1800s through the early 1900s. Martinsburg’s Apollo Civic Theatre was designed by architect Chappie Kent, who also designed the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, D.C. It hosts main stage productions and community events.
The Seibert Distillery, two miles outside of Martinsburg on Tuscarora Pike, was built in 1816. Visitors who instead take Burke Street east out of Martinsburg will cross over Vanmeter Ford Bridge about two miles outside of town. The three-arch stone bridge was built in 1832 and is the second-oldest bridge in West Virginia.
Martinsburg also has Stonebridge Golf Club, which is open to the public. Serious golfers may want to stop at The Woods Resort in Hedgesville, a four-star resort that has a championship course and a mid-level course. The Resort and conference center also has myriad of other year-round recreation options for visitors and residents.
Further east, Jefferson County is filled with recreational and historical tourism choices, the best-known of which is Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Abolitionist John Brown’s unsuccessful 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, which he hoped to use to free Southern slaves, was one of the sparks that ignited the Civil War. Much of the town and surrounding farmland is now part of the park. Harpers Ferry also contains Storer College, founded in 1867 as a freedmen’s school. Frederick Douglass was a trustee.
The Appalachian Trail runs through Harpers Ferry, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s administrative office is in Harpers Ferry.
An important Civil War battle occurred in and around Harpers Ferry in mid-September 1862. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops surrounded the Union garrison and fired on it from the hills overlooking the town. Union Commander Dixon S. Miles eventually surrendered more than 12,000 troops.
Charles Town also was the site of numerous Civil War skirmishes and a battle in October 1863 that severely damaged the courthouse and jail, both of which were rebuilt. The courthouse was the site of trial of John Brown and his co-conspirators. The downtown Jefferson County Museum has John Brown and Civil War items, including the wagon that carried Brown to his execution, the desk he used in his jail cell, and the gurney he laid on during the trial because he was too injured to sit. A historic walking tour includes the courthouse, the site a few blocks away where he was hanged, the museum, and the reading room where John Wilkes Booth did Shakespearean readings during the trial.
Charles Town also is famous for the Charles Town Races, now known as Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The year-round thoroughbred track has slot machines, table games, restaurants, shops, entertainment, and a hotel. Owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., it also hosts the West Virginia Breeders Classic.
Nearby Shepherdstown shares honors with Romney as the oldest incorporated town in West Virginia, both receiving their charters on the same day in 1762. Shepherdstown’s colonial-era buildings and Shepherd University give the tiny town a special feel. A monument along the Potomac River honors James Rumsey, the first man to pilot a steam-powered vessel. The Historic Shepherdstown Museum in the Entler Hotel has a half-scale replica of Rumsey’s steamboat, which was largely built in Shepherdstown and first successfully tested on the river there.
The Eastern Panhandle also is a good place for camping, biking, rafting, canoeing, and other outdoor recreation. For more information, contact the Martinsburg and Berkeley County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau or the Jefferson County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Written by Jennifer Bundy
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- Eastern Panhandle
- Harpers Ferry
- Charles Town Races
- Charles Town Races
- Berkeley Springs
- Berkeley Springs State Park
- Berkeley County
- Jefferson County
- Morgan County
- Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Shepherd University
- Washington Family
- George Washington
- Morgan Morgan
- Berkeley Castle
- Capon Springs Resort
- Martinsburg Roundhouse
- Belle Boyd
- John Brown
- Stonewall Jackson
- James Rumsey