Harpers Ferry is a place I’d always heard about, but about which I had only a few random associations. John Brown’s raid, battles, rivers, West Virginia (really, is that where West Virginia is?) There wasn’t one clear narrative line about it, which now makes sense to me, as an incredible number of important things have happened in this one tiny place. The history is extremely interesting, but the spatial / geographic / topographic / architectural character is astounding. It’s my new favorite “place” in the country.
It all starts with the geography:
- It’s where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac, one of the major passes through the Appalachians in that region.
- Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia all meet at this one point.
- It is a gorge, similar to the Hudson River Highlands. A big cliff of Maryland on one side, a big cliff of Virginia on the other, and a small, low area at the base of a cliff in West Virginia in the middle, which is the town.
- Because of this geography, important transportation systems cross here: two rivers, one canal, and two railroads.
- Because of the strategic importance of this crossing, lots of important battles and skirmishes happened here, mainly in the Civil War.
- Due to this transportation hub, materials such as coal and iron moved through here, and it became the site for the US Armory, which pioneered manufacturing arms from interchangeable parts.
- Since the armory was here, John Brown decided to take it over and take the weapons for an insurrection.
There are probably lots of other places in the country where a similar series of historical causes and events have taken place, and we haven’t paid much attention to them, because neither Greta nor I likes to stand at a field where something happened a long time ago and try to imagine it. We like to see tangible stuff that remains from these events. The visual evidence at Harpers Ferry is compressed, right there in front of you. For this and other reasons, it is one of the most vivid and beautiful places we’ve been.
The historic town center is run by the National Park Service, with beautifully restored buildings, showing the businesses and residences of the past. None of it feels Disneyfied – it is all simple and direct and appropriate. We were there on a cool autumn weekday – perhaps it is more of a circus in summer tourist season, but while we were there, it felt like we had stepped back in time to this perfectly-preserved ghost town.
Harpers Ferry isn’t a reconstruction – there are lots of things from the past that have been destroyed and not replaced, such as the Armory. There are aspects of it which do not contribute to the experience, such as some intrusive and probably unnecessary constructions by the railroad right in the center of town. It doesn’t try to be perfect, and so it feels authentic, which is probably why it felt like being in Europe rather than America. We’ve been to many historic places on this trip where an either/or approach is evident – either the history is pretty much ignored, or else it been elaborated and “celebrated” in a way that destroys its integrity. (Independence Mall come to mind.) Harpers Ferry gets it just right.
I’ve only met a couple of other people who’ve ever been here, although it’s one hour from Washington. It just seems like it’s farther because it’s in West Virginia. We’re 3 1/2 months and 9500 miles into this trip, and this is my favorite place so far.