Overlooking Harpers Ferry sits the historic St. Peter's Catholic Church. In the foreground stands a monument to abolitionist John Brown, whose campaign to abolish slavery in the 1850s led to one of the earliest pre-Civil War battles in what was then Virginia.
The B&O Railroad tunnel at Harpers Ferry, connecting Maryland and West Virginia for interstate commerce in the 1890s and renovated in 1931.
During COVID19, people have turned to parks for exercise and a stress-relieving escape. Whether visiting local neighborhood parks or state and national parks, Americans are spending more time outdoors, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Count me as one of those people. In the past 12 months, I’ve hiked through the Great Falls National Park on both sides of the Potomac River (Maryland and Virginia), as well as the Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal, the Catoctin Mountain Park north of Frederick, and small towns along the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River. Each time I returned home refreshed. Eager to visit someplace different on this Martin Luther King Holiday weekend, I chose Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and offers stunning vistas of the waterways, the vertical rock wall over old B&O railroad tunnel, cobble-stone streets, taverns and most important, history from the Civil War era.
Of all of the things Harpers Ferry is known for, it is perhaps most famous for being the site of abolitionist John Brown’s efforts to inspire a slave rebellion in Virginia by attacking the federal armory in October 1859. As he said to the armory’s watchman, “I came here from Kansas and this is a slave state; I want to free all the negroes in this state; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood.”
Brown’s small army of about 20 people was defeated by U.S. military within days; some of his men died. Brown and others were arrested and executed later that year for the insurrection. Around the corner was the 1860 election, which saw intense debate about slavery. In April 1861 the Civil War officially began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.
The iconic St. Peter's Catholic Church at Harpers Ferry overlooks the John Brown monument.
Old hardware store and other businesses. Old stone and brick buildings line the town's streets.
The town's commercial center includes an old hardware store, clothiers, bookstores, and a museum gift shop.
What struck me this day at Harpers Ferry was not only the physical artifacts of that era – remains of Brown’s fort and the destroyed armory, the restored buildings managed by the National Park Service – but also the legacy of that period we seem to be struggling with as a nation in 2021: freedom, equality, justice and protest.
My visit to Harpers Ferry on this Martin Luther King holiday weekend unleashed some profound thoughts: I went there to hike with my dog, take pictures, and relax. But the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, where our democratic values and duly elected government were under assault, spoke to me of the symbolism these structures provide of our nation’s history and values. They’re not just buildings. They spoke to me as a new president takes office this week. They’re a reminder of both our history and our aspirations for a better future.
View from the railway bridge overlooking the place where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.