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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Corporation of Harpers Ferry
Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, facing south, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers. Potomac flows right to left.
Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, facing south, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers. Potomac flows right to left.
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Location in Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Location in West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in the United States
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Location in the United States
Country United States
State West Virginia
County Jefferson
 • Total 0.62 sq mi (1.62 km2)
 • Land 0.54 sq mi (1.39 km2)
 • Water 0.09 sq mi (0.23 km2)
489 ft (149 m)
 • Total 285
 • Density 527.10/sq mi (203.45/km2)
Time zone UTC-5 (Eastern (EST))
 • Summer (DST) UTC-4 (EDT)
ZIP code
Area code(s) 304
FIPS code 54-35284
GNIS feature ID 1560593

Harpers Ferry is a historic town in Jefferson County, West Virginia, United States, in the lower Shenandoah Valley. The population was 285 at the 2020 census. It is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where the U.S. states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. It is the easternmost town in West Virginia and during the Civil War was the northernmost point of Confederate-controlled territory. It has been called "the best strategic point in the whole South".

The town was formerly spelled Harper's Ferry with an apostrophe—in the 18th century, it was the site of a ferry service owned and operated by Robert Harper. The United States Board on Geographic Names, whose Domestic Name Committee is reluctant to include apostrophes in official place names, established the standard spelling of "Harpers Ferry" by 1891.

By far, the most important event in the town's history was John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859.

Prior to the Civil War, Harpers Ferry was a manufacturing town, as well as a transportation hub. (See Virginius Island and Harpers Ferry Armory.)

The main economic activity in the town in the 20th and 21st centuries is tourism. John Brown's Fort is the most visited tourist site in the state of West Virginia. The headquarters of the Appalachian Trail are there—not the midpoint, but close to it, and easily accessible—and the buildings of the former Storer College are used by the National Park Service for one of its four national training centers. The National Park Service is in the 21st century Harpers Ferry's largest employer.

The lower town has been reconstructed by the National Park Service. It was in ruins at the end of the Civil War, not helped by river flooding. "The fact that Harpers Ferry was first and foremost an industrial village during the 19th century is not apparent in the sights, sounds or smells of the town today."


Earlier years

In 1733, Peter Stephens, a squatter, had settled on land near "The Point" (the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet), and established a ferry from Virginia (now West Virginia) to Maryland, across the Potomac. Fourteen years later (1747), while traveling from Maryland to Virginia, Robert Harper passed through the area which was named "The Hole" (the gap in the mountains along the Potomac River). Harper recognized the potential for industry, given the power the two rivers could generate, and the traffic he could ferry across the Potomac River. Harper paid Stephens 30 British guinea for what was essentially Stephens' squatting rights, since the land actually belonged to Lord Fairfax.

In April 1751, Harper purchased 126 acres of land from Lord Fairfax. In 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted Harper the right to establish and maintain a ferry across the Potomac River (even though a ferry had been functioning successfully in the area before and after Harper first settled there). In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry."

View from Jefferson Rock
View of Harpers Ferry from Jefferson Rock in 1854.
View from Jefferson Rock1
The same view in 2004.

On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge" from a rock that is now named for him. This stop took place as Jefferson was traveling to Philadelphia and passed through Harpers Ferry with his daughter Patsy. Jefferson called the site "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

George Washington, as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794, Washington's familiarity with the area led him to propose the site for a new United States armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family moved to the area; his great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859, and George's brother Charles Washington founded the nearby Jefferson County town of Charles Town.

In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre (0.5 km2) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. This was one of only two such facilities in the U.S., the other being Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army. The town was transformed into an industrial center; between 1801 and 1861, when it was destroyed to prevent capture during the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Inventor Captain John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in firearms manufactured at his rifle works at the armory between 1820 and 1840; his M1819 Hall rifle was the first breech-loading weapon adopted by the U.S. Army.

Industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service through the town.

John Brown's raid

Harpers Ferry National Park map
National Park Service map of Harper Ferry showing the Appalachian Trail, with (1) being the scene of John Brown's raid

On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal. Five of the men were Black: three free Black men, one a freed slave and one a fugitive slave. During this time assisting fugitive slaves was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown attacked and captured several buildings; he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The first shot mortally wounded Hayward Shepherd, a free black man who had been a night baggage porter for the B&O Railroad running through Harpers Ferry near the armory. The noise from that shot alerted Dr. John Starry shortly after 1:00 am. He walked from his nearby home to investigate the shooting and was confronted by Brown's men. Starry stated that he was a doctor but could do nothing more for Shepherd, and Brown's men allowed him to leave. Instead of going home Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages, alerting residents to the raid.

When Starry reached nearby Charles Town, the church bells were rung to arouse the citizens from their sleep. John Brown's men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the engine house adjacent to the armory.

Preserved John Brown's Fort (the engine house) in 2007

The secretary of war asked for the assistance of the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines, the nearest troops. Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. In need of an officer to lead the expedition, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was found on leave nearby and was assigned as commander along with Lt. J. E. B. Stuart as his aide-de-camp. Lee led the unit in his regular civilian clothes, as none of his uniforms were available when he accepted the command. The whole contingent arrived by train on October 18, and after negotiation failed they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty themselves. Brown was tried for treason against the State of Virginia, convicted and hanged in nearby Charles Town. Starry's testimony was integral to his conviction. Following the prosecution (by Andrew Hunter), "John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since." The Marines returned to their barracks and Col. Lee returned to finish his leave. The raid was a catalyst for the Civil War.

Civil War

NWDNS-165-SB-26 Harpers Ferry Virginia
Harpers Ferry in 1865, looking east (downstream)

The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, the U.S. garrison attempted to burn the arsenal and destroy the machinery, to prevent the Confederates from using it. Locals saved the equipment, which the Confederate Army transferred to a more secure location in its capital of Richmond. The U.S. Army never renewed arms production in Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry gun smith
Recreation of a 19th-century gun-making workshop

Because of the town's strategic location on the railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town's garrison of 14,000 Federal troops played a key role in the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. Gen. Robert E. Lee did not want to continue on to Maryland without capturing the town. It was on his supply line and could control one of his possible routes of retreat if the invasion did not go well.

Dividing his army of approximately 40,000 into four sections, Lee used the cover of the mountains to send three columns under Stonewall Jackson to surround and capture the town.

Harper's Ferry and Bridge, from Maryland Heights.
Harper's Ferry and Bridge from Maryland Heights, 1872
Maryland Heights, Harper's Ferry, 1873

The Battle of Harpers Ferry started with light fighting September 13 as the Confederates tried to capture the Maryland Heights to the northeast, while John Walker moved back over the Potomac to capture Loudoun Heights south of town. After a Confederate artillery bombardment on September 14 and 15, the Federal garrison surrendered. With 12,419 Federal troops captured, the surrender at Harpers Ferry was the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II.

Because of the delay in capturing Harpers Ferry and the movement of Federal forces to the west, Lee was forced to regroup at the town of Sharpsburg. Two days later he commanded troops in the Battle of Antietam, which had the highest number of deaths among troops of any single day in United States military history.

By July 1864, the Union again had control of Harpers Ferry. On 4 July 1864, the Union commanding Gen. Franz Sigel withdrew his troops to Maryland Heights. From there he resisted Jubal Anderson Early's attempt to enter the town and drive the Federal garrison from Maryland Heights.

20th century

Harpers Ferry and the bridge overlooking sides of Maryland and West Virginia (taken from West Virginia)

On August 15, 1906, the Niagara Movement led by author and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, held its first meeting on American soil on the campus of Storer College, now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The three-day gathering, which was held to secure civil rights for African Americans, was later described by DuBois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." Attendees of the 1906 meeting walked from Storer College to the nearby farm of the Murphy family, then the site of the historic fort where John Brown's quest to free four million enslaved African Americans reached its bloody climax.

In 1944 most of the town became a park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service. The majority of the existing homes in Harpers Ferry (including Charmadoah) are historic, and some of these are registered in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1950 Harpers Ferry had a population of 822.

21st century

On July 23, 2015, a fire broke out in downtown Harpers Ferry, destroying eight or nine businesses and two apartments in two historic buildings. The buildings are in the process of being rebuilt.


Harpers Ferry is located at 39°19′31″N 77°44′37″W / 39.32528°N 77.74361°W / 39.32528; -77.74361 (39.325398, -77.743599), at the confluence of the Shenandoah River, left, and the Potomac River, right. Across the Shenandoah lie the Loudoun Heights, in Virginia, while across the Potomac are the Maryland Heights, in Maryland.
Appalachain Trail sign at Harpers Ferry
Harper's Ferry is traditionally the psychological midpoint on the Appalachian Trail, though the mileage is not equal.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 0.61 square miles (1.58 km2), of which, 0.53 square miles (1.37 km2) is land and 0.08 square miles (0.21 km2) is water. Some properties are currently threatened by development.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, that ". . . the passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature".

From most of Harpers Ferry, a fading advertisement for Mennen's Borated Talcum Toilet Powder painted on the cliff face of Maryland Heights decades ago is still visible.


The climate in this area is characterized by hot, humid summers and generally mild to cool winters, with yearly snowfall averaging 20.7 inches. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Harpers Ferry has a humid subtropical climate, abbreviated "Cfa" on climate maps.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1850 1,747
1860 1,339 −23.4%
1880 764
1890 958 25.4%
1900 896 −6.5%
1910 766 −14.5%
1920 713 −6.9%
1930 705 −1.1%
1940 665 −5.7%
1950 822 23.6%
1960 572 −30.4%
1970 423 −26.0%
1980 361 −14.7%
1990 308 −14.7%
2000 307 −0.3%
2010 286 −6.8%
2020 285 −0.3%
U.S. Decennial Census

2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 286 people, 131 households, and 78 families residing in the town. The population density was 539.6 inhabitants per square mile (208.3/km2). There were 175 housing units at an average density of 330.2 per square mile (127.5/km2). The racial makeup of the town was 94% White, 4% African American, 1% Native American, 0% from other races, and 1% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1% of the population.

There were 131 households, of which 21% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44% were married couples living together, 13% had a female householder with no husband present, 3% had a male householder with no wife present, and 41% were non-families. 29% of all households were made up of individuals, and 15% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.18 and the average family size was 2.69.

The median age in the town was 52 years. 17% of residents were under the age of 18; 3% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 19% were from 25 to 44; 38% were from 45 to 64; and 23% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the town was 49.3% male and 50.7% female.


Roads and highways

2019-05-16 10 23 25 View south along U.S. Route 340 (William L. Wilson Freeway) at U.S. Route 340 Alternate (Shenandoah Street) in Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, West Virginia
The junction of US 340 and unsigned US 340 Alternate in Harpers Ferry

The only significant highway providing access to Harpers Ferry is U.S. Route 340. Although signed north-south, the road runs generally eastward from Harpers Ferry across the northern tip of Loudoun County, Virginia after crossing the Shenandoah River, then quickly crosses the Potomac River into Maryland, eventually reaching its terminus at Frederick. To the west, U.S. Route 340 passes through Charles Town before turning southwest and traversing the eastern edge of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Harpers Ferry and neighboring Bolivar host an unsigned alternate route of U.S. Route 340, which follows Washington Street, High Street and Shenandoah Street.


Columbian (B&O) train
B&O RR Columbian at Harpers Ferry in 1949

Amtrak provides service to Harpers Ferry two times a day (once in each direction) on the Capitol Limited. It is also served by MARC on the Brunswick Line. The city's passenger rail station is at the West Virginia end of the historic railroad bridge across the Potomac River. In addition about 40–50 CSX freight trains daily pass through Harpers Ferry and over the bridge spanning the Potomac River.

Notable people

Images for kids

See also

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