By Jennifer Powell (Photo/Chris Weisler Photography)
Our forefathers knew their stuff when it came to the strategic importance of Harpers Ferry. The passage of the Po- tomac River through the Blue Ridge Mountains that Thomas Jefferson deemed in 1783 to be “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” was proposed and further developed by George Washington in 1794 as the site for the U.S. Armory and Arsenal.
Only an hour’s drive from Alexandria, the majestic river that once shipped weapons, goods and provided passage for Union and Confederate troops alike now plays host to all manner of activities, including swimming, rafting, tubing, zip-lining, camping, fishing and boating.
The B&O Railroad that ran near the armory linking it to D.C. has seen several iterations since the 1800s. Trains are spotted coming through the Blue Ridge mountain tunnel, but even more fun can be found trekking alongside it over the old railroad bridge that spans the Potomac River between Maryland Heights, Md. and Harpers Ferry.
The bridge offers panoramic views for visitors with ice creams in hand and for bicyclists and hikers crossing this part of the Appalachian Trail, which extends more than 1,000 miles in either direction.
The historic town that at one point became a booming industrial center for weapons and had a population of over 3,000 in 1861, now has a population of slightly more than 300 residents and plays host to upwards of 3,000 daily visitors on busy weekends during peak summer and fall seasons.
Situated at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet, the town is surrounded by two waterways, six national parks, is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is one of only a handful of cities in the U.S. where the Appalachian Trail runs through town.
The C&O Canal National Park, Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail all converge at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
After some 20 years of visit- ing Harpers Ferry for “daytrips on a dime,” our family of six was only too excited to partake in some more posh and exciting adventures. But fondness for our traditional low-key activities had us doing both. Truly, any budget will get you a wonderful and memorable day in Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry immerses you in history and nature. The two combine seamlessly inside Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Passing over the U.S. Route 340 bridge, white river rapids of beautiful cascading water over rock formations welcomes you to town.
The end of the bridge puts you at the first National Park Service lot, which is a great spot to park for a $10 ticket and is transferrable to other NPS lots around town and good for a full weekend.
A short walk provides entry into the Shenandoah River to swim or wade into the cascading water. Many families make a day of it right here with a picnic and swimming.
A 20-minute hike sends you along the Armory Canal Trail. This fantastic trail reveals the canals structures that are essentially the same as they were 200 years ago. The inactive canal is refuge for all sorts of wildlife and a great place to walk, explore and take amazing photos.
Enjoy markers, still standing locks and structures representative of the strategic geography of the canal and its importance in the transport of goods and arms before the invention of planes and trucks.
Walk or drive next to the canal and very soon you will be in the historic town section of Harpers Ferry National Park, where you can park at the train station. Amazingly, much of the lower town is kept historically accurate and still appears as it did in the 19th century. Its strategic location made it a target for both Northern and Southern armies during the Civil War, and a battle or skirmish occurred here every year during the conflict.
Many visitors start here with a ranger-guided tour of the surrounding park and historical buildings and markers. If not a ranger, then a number of historically garbed docents walking in period garb are ready and eager to discuss the town’s history, its relevance to current events, give advice where to visit and dispense directions if needed.
This is where we met young Thomas Cortese, playing fife in full Union soldier uniform. A historical docent with St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Cortese informed us that Confederate soldiers would have stolen the costume he was wearing in 1862 during their raid on the armory.
Cortese related the conflict of the Civil War to a question of federal rights versus the rights of states, and said that the antebellum U.S. operated much like the European Union, with states acting like individual countries. But it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 that was a catalyst in the war and made it about slavery above other factors.
Much of the town is dedicated to its rich and unique place in American history. It regularly hosts living history events, with historical presentations taking place in most of the buildings in the lower town, and offers such gems as the John Brown Wax Museum, the Lewis and Clark Museum and the hallowed ground of a battlefield site. With some back- ground on the town, you realize that you are in the center of numerous historical happenings.
From the lower part of town, Main Street is a steep incline of modern stores within historic buildings, restaurants and inns. A re that broke out in downtown Harpers Ferry in July 2015 destroyed nine of the town’s businesses and apartments in two historic buildings. The buildings are in the process of being rebuilt, but this unfortunate event will not offset your visit.
Amidst the shoal walls and stone buildings, you will find a great stop for all your troops. To step into True Treats Historic Candy is to engage in a sweet history lesson in sweets.
Susan Benjamin’s customers are educated in candy from the early Native American years through present day and it is a wonderfully memorable experience. The authentic candy selections date back to 1591, using original sources whenever possible. Here you can find a whole section of historical candy that soldiers of the time would purchase and keep in their satchels. Horehound candy, anyone?
With a little prodding, our docent convinced us that the John Brown Wax Museum would be well worth the minimal cost of admission. John Brown altered America’s destiny when the fiery abolitionist attacked the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, in an attempt to steal weapons for use in a slave uprising in the South and to free 4 million enslaved African Americans.
Eighty-seven wax figures in the museum are grouped in a total of 13 scenes. They give the effect of historical paintings come to life. They are moving and rich in detail, including the deaths of the first casualties of the raid — a black night porter and John Brown’s own son — slaves sitting near signage announcing a slave auction; the underground railroad, and John Brown standing trial in court while on a hospital bed. The docent was gone when we emerged, but was right that the museum held our interest but good.
After seeing some old haunts and new spots in town, it was time to head to the river. For our youngest child’s first time tubing, we planned in advance and reserved spots with the lo- cal River Riders on their Harpers Ferry Shenandoah River at water tubing trip.
A far cry from our old days in rubber tubes on the rapids, this lazy river adventure on at water in deluxe tubes — with a head rest and closed bottom — was pure bliss. Dubbed “the Sunday Drive” of the company’s offerings, this one and a half hour oat was a great way to be swept down the river between the mountains under a blue sky on a hot day.
River Riders provides tubes, life jackets, parking and free shuttle service back and forth to the starting point if you want to go again. We saw children’s birthday parties, couples on dates, groups of families paddling in their kayak-style tubes, swimming and picnicking together down the river.
We passed five women tied together in pentagon formation fishing with a cooler of food. In truth, our 10-year-old newbie would have enjoyed the white water offerings, especially in a closed tube that protects a person’s undercarriage when passing over the rocks.
Upon leaving and realizing just how hungry we were, a local resident gave us a great tip to try Mena’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant. So it was back to town where Mena makes and throws the dough by hand. The pizza was delicious andt the staff was wonderful to ourt famished crew paying with wet dollars. Mena’s sits on Washington St. with great big windows, the better to see Appalachian Trail hikers on their way through town.
After lunch, the children were treated to the River Riders’ zip line canopy guided tour. The three-hour tour came complete with harness, helmets and good-natured attentive staff, who enjoyed flying high above the ground and next to the river along eight separate zip lines ranging from 200 to almost 800 feet in length.
This active adventure also had the kids climbing several belayed ladders, two suspension bridges and taking a 25- foot free fall on the automatic hands-free safety belay.
Their three-hour absence up in the trees provided an opportunity to explore and hike without children. We proceeded back to town to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters, the halfway mark on the trail. A must stop for anyone visiting, the headquarters was where we met yet another wonderful guide, Dave Tarasevich. Before we were done exchanging pleasantries, Tarasevich had laid out three maps and brochures of the area and was showing us the best local hikes that could be done within an hour.
After a short hike up to Maryland Heights and nearing our finish time, we stopped into the Victorian-era bed and breakfast, the Angler’s Inn. The establishment’s upbeat owners, Debbie and Bryan Kelly, are renowned for helping to make great memories for their guests, both at the beautiful inn featuring Debby’s delicious, high-quality meals and snacks, as well as Bryan’s popular and un- forgettable guided fishing tours.
Running the trips from the couple’s White Fly Outfitters store nearby, Bryan knows the rivers well, and shed here competitively from 1996 until 2000.
A typical day entails meeting up at White Fly Outfitters, where a shuttle to and from the river is provided to guests in the form of a big, comfortable van. Guests then fish for three to four hours, either for trout in the national forest streams, or angling for small mouth bass on the town’s legendary rivers. Angler’s Inn provides a delicious midday catered lunch enjoyed on an island stop with a shady beach, tables and chairs. The group then fishes again for another three to four hours. The scenery on this trip is breath- taking and guests go through some Class-3 rapids.
For beginners, Bryan teaches fly-fishing techniques, and loves to share with these clients their first caught fish. Bryan guarantees that you will catch some fish on this adventure, and his more experienced fishers will be happy with their catch as well.
Nearing the day’s end, we regrouped with our family for a lovely upscale dinner at nearby Bistro 1840, which boasts a 100-percent scratch kitchen with everything prepared fresh and in-house on a daily basis. None of us left disappointed.
Despite being full to the gills, our group forced ourselves to end the day with our tradition of eating an ice cream cone while walking across the old railroad bridge and smiling at everyone we passed.