Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The confluence at Harpers Ferry

View from Jefferson Rock

Harpers Ferry is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers - the Shenandoah mirroring our trip up Interstate 81 from its headwaters in the mountains of Virginia, and the Potomac tracing a more easterly route through West Virginia on its journey to the Chesapeake Bay. However, it isn’t only the rivers that converge in this corner of WV; state lines, national parks and trails, and American history collide for an intense experience that has all the hallmarks of the perfect spring break destination.

St. Peter's Catholic Church

We started our morning closer to Interstate 81, where we had arrived late the previous evening after a day spent in Appomattox Court House and Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. The short drive didn’t net the boys any new state lines crossed; it was only another mile east of Harpers Ferry (after our visit) that we re-entered Virginia from WV in order to access the bridge across the Potomac and into Maryland. This means the total # of states traversed that day was 6; we would still venture into Pennsylvania and cross New Jersey on our way to New York that evening.

View across Arsenal Square

Despite seemingly being at the center of everything, Harpers Ferry has an isolated feel to it. We utilized the large parking lot at the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park Visitor Center and then took the free bus 2 miles into town as there isn’t really any public parking in what is termed “Lower Town”. Once there, we realized that the rivers effectively cut the town off from everything except the rest of West Virginia – and as it is the furthest, most northeast corner of the state, the town seems remote as you’re trying to get there. The seclusion is somewhat of an illusion though, as we soon found ourselves on Shenandoah Street with a network of roads and trails leading every which way, one of those being the Appalachian Trail. As it winds through the mountains from Maine to Georgia, the AT crosses the Potomac from Maryland utilizing the Potomac Railroad Bridge, skirts the original site of John Brown’s Fort, and then cuts right through the heart of town. Deciding to start our Harpers Ferry experience by getting a lay of the land, we started up the stone steps on the AT and worked our way up to Jefferson Rock.

Ruins of St. John's

Steep steps led past St. Peter’s Catholic Church and the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church, one of the five earliest churches in Harpers Ferry (1852). Although Jefferson Rock is only ¼ mile from the fort, it is an ascent in elevation, which is what makes the rock a worthy destination.
“On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approachs the Patowmac, in quest of passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea… This scene is worthy a voyage across the Atlantic.”
This is how Thomas Jefferson described the view during his visit in 1783. The uppermost slab of Jefferson Rock originally rested on a narrow base that threatened to crumble from the weight of weather and tourists. Sometime around 1855 four pillars were placed under the corners of the slab, and today it is illegal to walk on, climb, ascend, descend or traverse Jefferson Rock or its supporting base rock.

John Brown's Fort

Having descended we made our way towards John Brown’s fort. In October 1859, determined to arm slaves and spark a rebellion, John Brown and his followers seized the armory at Harpers Ferry along with several other strategic points. The raid failed, and most of the men involved were killed or captured. Brown was tried and executed, and the nation took several large steps towards Civil War. Today the fort stands between Arsenal Square and the original site of the fort, and visitors can experience the raid at the John Brown Museum through film and interactive exhibits. (See this article for an interesting read on the “Second Raid on Harpers Ferry”)

Footbridge to C&O Canal and Maryland Heights

From there we headed to the Point to see where the Potomac and Shenandoah converge. This natural corridor where the Potomac cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains has seen traffic for centuries: first American Indians, then European settlers. Robert Harper started a ferry across in 1747, and the rushing waters inspired George Washington to locate the US armory here some years later. Further downriver the bridge connecting Virginia to Maryland can be seen, and a train trestle that still is used by trains crosses towards the Harpers Ferry tunnel. In addition to the Potomac Railroad Bridge now carrying foot traffic and the Appalachian Trail, the ruins of the old Baltimore & Ohio (B & O) railroad bridge are still present. Once a majestic wood covered bridge that spanned the Potomac River, this was the bridge used during John Brown’s raid across the river. When Virginia seceded in April, 1861, the bridge remained a physical connection to the Union, one that would be rebuilt and destroyed nine times (four times by war, five times by floods).

View from footbridge back towards the Point

From the Point we descended the stairs to reach the trails along the Shenandoah River. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the aforementioned C&O) National Historical Park stretches all the way from Washington DC to Cumberland in Maryland, and for the section in Harpers Ferry, the Potomac Heritage Trail follows the C&O Canal Towpath as well. This developing network of hiking and water trails extends all the way from western Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay. On our visit the floodplain was awash with bluebells, and while there are trails to bring visitors back to the Visitor Center, we opted to return to the shuttle stop to save our strength for the next leg of our trip.

On the banks of the Shenandoah

There remained much of Harpers Ferry that went unexplored; from the Civil War battlefields at Bolivar heights, to General Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 battle line at Schoolhouse Ridge, to the panoramic views of the town and river from Maryland and Loudoun Heights. The 4,000 acres includes 20 miles of trails ranging from easy riverside strolls to four-mile hikes across Civil War battlefields to eight-mile adventures into the mountains; the best place to start planning your trip to Harpers Ferry is the National Parks website. For us however, this portion of the adventure came to a close – we crossed the two rivers, several state lines, and hundreds of years back into the present, and headed north to the site of the bloody Civil War battle, Antietam.

Note: not Jefferson Rock

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful view from next-to-Jefferson Rock!


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