22 miles SW of Frederick; 54 miles W of Baltimore; 55 miles S of Gettysburg
Though you can hardly tell today, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was a bustling industrial center from the 1700s until the 1930s, when it was hit by the double disasters of the Depression and a flood. It's perhaps best known for abolitionist John Brown's rebellion and the town's part in the Civil War.
On October 16, 1859, Brown -- already notorious from a bloody raid against slaveholders in Kansas -- enlisted 19 men to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, intent on arming the nation's slaves and starting a rebellion. Frederick Douglass warned Brown that the arsenal, in a town wedged between mountains and the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, would be impossible to hold with so few men, and, as Douglass had foreseen, the raid failed. Brown and his men captured the arsenal but were unable to raise any significant number of slaves into rebellion. They were soon pinned in the arsenal's firehouse (later known as John Brown's Fort), and Brown was captured when U.S. Marines under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the building. Brown was tried and convicted of "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder," for which he was hanged. His action polarized the nation and was one of the sparks that ignited the war. Harpers Ferry later witnessed the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War; it also opened one of the earliest integrated schools in the U.S.
Today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is a delightful place to spend a day or weekend. Its narrow streets are lined with historic homes and restored shops that sell antiques and handicrafts. The National Park Service administers much of this tiny town. Historic exhibits focus on John Brown's raid, the town's industry, Storer College (an early African-American college), and the town's role in the Civil War, when it changed hands between the Union and the Confederacy eight times. Hills soar overhead and plunge down into the white waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Walkers will find 4 miles of trails for a stroll or a strenuous hike. Water lovers will want to sign on for a rafting or kayaking run.
Plans have already begun for the 150th anniversary observance of the start of the Civil War. Check the park's website for events in 2011 and 2012. Events will be scheduled through 2015. Also, new trails are due to be developed on the battlefield lands coming into the park in 2010.