Harpers Ferry: The Powder Keg of the Civil War

On the way back from visiting family last week in Virginia Beach, we stopped by Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  It’s a fantastic detour for anyone driving along I-95 or I-81.

For you Civil War buffs, you may recognize the location as the spark that ignited the Civil War.  Located at the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the town is where Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia meet.  It is also where, in 1859, an abolitionist named John Brown and his group of 21 other men raided the Harpers Ferry Armory – then, the small arms producer for the US Army – in an attempt to begin a chain reaction of freeing slaves throughout the South in a rebellion against slaveholders.  While Brown was captured, arrested, and hung for treason, his raid is credited with being the catalyst for the Civil War.

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John Brown’s Fort


Whether or not you love history, you can still enjoy Harpers Ferry.  The quaint town is historic, but not obnoxiously so.  You won’t see a lot of obviously staged or commercial history kitsch.  While there are museums, they fit seamlessly into the community.  The town gives you the impression that you are stepping back in time to a degree, but that feeling is balanced with a subtly hip community of hippies, local wine and beer connoisseurs, and outdoors enthusiasts.

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Formerly a school that served the Harpers Ferry area

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The main street of Harpers Ferry

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Walk up the church on the hill (or drive the ultra narrow Church St.) to get a fantastic view of the lower part of the town and the river.


Harpers Ferry is also a favorite stopover for Appalachian Trail hikers.  After finding out that a fantastic view of the town could be enjoyed after a short hike, we planned to check it out.

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In order to reach the viewpoint (called Overlook Cliff), cross the rail bridge (there is a walkway), which will get you across the bridge.  Look for the Maryland Heights trail.

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Once you reach the Maryland Heights trail, you can choose to complete the entire circuit – which could take all day – or you could complete a 2-hour round trip hike to the viewpoint.  If you choose to complete the entire circuit, you could visit several historic sites and the ruins of some old forts.  While that sounded appealing, we needed to drive the rest of the way home that same day and didn’t have much time, so we opted for the hike to Overlook Cliff.

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The overlook is at the top of this ridge

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If you look closely, you can spot a rock climber…yikes!

After approximately an hour of hiking (much of it pretty steep), your efforts are rewarded.

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Gorgeous!  Thank you, Harpers Ferry.

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