Harpers Ferry

Reading this week:

  • The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood

The other weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Harpers Ferry! We had been meaning to go for a while. I have fond memories of Harpers Ferry. There are a number of hiking trails in the vicinity, not to mention the Appalachian Trail itself, and it is a convenient middle distance away from where I grew up (over by Annapolis) which made it an excellent destination for hiking back when I was in the Boy Scouts and I did that sort of thing more often. Meanwhile my super amazing girlfriend wanted to go because we both enjoy day trips and she is trying to go to as many states as possible. However she has strict rules for when it counts as to whether or not she’s been to a state; she has to do something substantial in that state in order to tick it off her travel to-do list. Spending the day in Harpers Ferry, which is conveniently in West Virginia, is substantial enough to count.

Back in my Boy Scout days we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the museum portions of Harpers Ferry, not that I really had enough American historical context to really appreciate the message they convey anyways. Being young Boy Scouts who by the time we were visiting the town would have been hot off the trail, we were more interested in the touristy candy shops and the like. I therefore learned a whole lot on this visit. Harpers Ferry is a very old town (in American terms) and I was surprised to discover what a center of industry it had been, being one of the major producers of weapons for the United States. There is little evidence of that today, given that they tour down all the gun shops, though just by the geography it is evident there is a lot of potential for water-powered works. If you haven’t been it is an extremely picturesque town on the point of land bordered by the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, surrounded by the Appalachian hills and exposed bedrock that speaks to the ancient nature of the site. Plus we managed to time it so we arrived on perhaps the peak fall day of the year, as I am sure the picture at the top attests to.

Within its long history the main claim to fame for Harpers Ferry is all the ties it has to specifically Black history. This is probably the aspect I’ve only relatively recently acquired to the tools to grasp. The single most well-known event is of course John Brown’s Raid. The “museum” portion of Harpers Ferry is actually a number of different buildings all focusing on different things, and they have an entire building dedicated to John Brown. I learned a good chunk about the raid. For example, I had always imagined it has John Brown as the only white guy along with a handful of formerly enslaved people, so I was surprised to discover he had a relatively sizeable group with him. I think that goes to show that for all the discussion about the abolition of slavery being a difficult choice for so many people in the United States pre-Civil War, there were always a lot of people who knew the right answer and were willing to act on it. Violence is usually an ineffective way to promote political goals, as I think actually the history of the Civil War shows, and I condemn it, but people like John Brown and his compatriots willing to do what they did shows that moral clarity was to be had even in that era.

A lot of the museums displays are probably ripe for an update or at least a sprucing up, but Harpers Ferry also does an excellent job I think of contextualizing the history it presents. A good example is the above stone that is displayed on the street in Harpers Ferry with a sign next to it. The stone is a monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy that tried to rewrite the history of slavery (as all these monuments try to do), claiming that Black people were somewhere between content and happy with being enslaved. The sign next to it calls out their bullshit. I know it is hard to read in my picture but it talks about a woman named Pearl Tatten speaking up during the ceremony to say that the story was untrue and the enslaved people were always fighting for their freedom, to the astonishment of the people there to celebrate slavery. Probably still better to take the stone down entirely but it is an excellent moment to explain the false narrative these monuments try to impose on American history as part of a political project.

A final note on the Black history on display at Harpers Ferry was a large exhibit on Storer College, a school and college founded originally to educate those recently emancipated in the Civil War which found a home at Harpers Ferry. It was a pivotal institution and I was extremely interested to learn about it during our visit.

Besides the national park site we also explored the environs of Harpers Ferry. There is a place called Jefferson’s Rock, which is a rock that Thomas Jefferson stood at, and in the above picture I am standing near the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. I liked it because it reminded me of Niamkolo Church. Our biggest adventure of the day was hiking up to Maryland Heights for the view. To get there you have to hike a fairly easy but unfairly steep trail which takes about two hours round trip. It was a gorgeous day as I mentioned and maybe even a little hot for fall and we utterly failed to bring any water with us. We pressed on though and were rewarded with a stunning view of the river confluence and the town itself and that Appalachian fall foliage which my super amazing girlfriend would never admit is anywhere as good as what you get up in New England. It was great though and after we managed to get back down we quenched our thirst at one of the local bars which also had a pretty excellent spinach dip. Then we drove home, happy to have had a wonderful day and learned not a little about history.