Where is Harpers Ferry?

Bethney Foster

Harpers Ferry is a small, historic town in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Also called Harper’s Ferry, the historic town is at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and at the point where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. The town’s population numbers about 300 people.

Harpers-Ferry was on the border between Union and Confederate forces when the Civil War broke out.
Harpers-Ferry was on the border between Union and Confederate forces when the Civil War broke out.

Parts of the town are located in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The park includes land in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. In 1963, the U.S. Congress declared it a National Historic Park. Including almost 4,000 acres (1,618 hectares), in 1966 the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Harpers Ferry in 1881, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous speech about abolitionist John Brown.
In Harpers Ferry in 1881, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous speech about abolitionist John Brown.

Most of the rest of the town is located in the Harpers Ferry Historic District. The district includes about 100 historic buildings. In addition, the B&O Railroad Potomac River Crossing and St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church—both on the National Historic Register—adjoin the historic district.

The Appalachian Trail passes directly through the town, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is headquartered there. Amtrak provides service to Harpers Ferry twice a day. CSX freight trains also pass through each day.

The town is best known as the site where abolitionist John Brown captured the armory in 1859. Brown was captured in the armory and hanged. He predicted, in his last words, that a civil war was coming to end slavery.

The town was on the border between Union and Confederate forces when war did break out two years later, in 1861. The town passed between the two sides at least eight times during the four-year American Civil War. During the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862, 12,500 Union troops were taken prisoner.

After the Civil War, the U.S. government transferred parts of Berkley and Jefferson Counties in Virginia. These counties became parts of West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union throughout the war. Harpers Ferry was part of this transfer and became part of the area that forms the panhandle of West Virginia.

Storer College, one of the first integrated schools in the United States, was founded in Harpers Ferry in 1865 and operated until 1955. Originally a school for freed slaves, the school eventually became a college. It is also the site where Frederick Douglass delivered his 1881 speech about abolitionist John Brown.

One of the earliest meetings of the U.S. civil rights movement was held at Storer College. W.E.B. Du Bois held a three-day gathering at the college in 1906. The town also developed an amusement park known as Island Park in the early 20th century.

Harpers Ferry is a small town in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Harpers Ferry is a small town in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

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Discussion Comments


I had no idea that the park at Harpers Ferry was located in three states! I don't know why, but I find stuff like that really cool. I would love to visit four corners (a spot in the southwest where you can stand in four states at once) one of these days.

For a second I was wondering which state is responsible for maintaining the park. Then I remembered it was a national park, so I'm sure it's maintained with federal funding and personnel.


@ceilingcat - Tubing does sound fun. And that sounds like a great way to lure someone into Harpers Ferry tourism that isn't a history buff!

I think Harpers Ferry would be fun to visit, but I can't imagine living there. First of all, only 300 people? That's one small town! I personally prefer the anonymity of the city.

Second of all, living in a tourist location stinks! I have a friend that lives in a historic spot that gets a ton of tourism in the summer and he hates it! There's always tourists clogging up the town when he's out and about trying to run errands and stuff.

I think I'll just stick to visiting tourist spots rather than living in them.


I visited Harpers Ferry as a child, but I didn't pay very close attention to the history. I completely overlooked the fact that so many important things happened in Harpers Ferry.

I vaguely remember learning about John Brown in school, but I don't think I put two and two together when I took that trip!

I would actually really love to go back as an adult. I want to see the historic stuff, because I think I would have a much great appreciation than I did when I was a kid.

Also, I've heard that Harpers Ferry tubing is pretty fun. Apparently you can go tubing down the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry!


I went to visit Harpers Ferry several years ago and it's really a pretty place. Cute little town, lovely train bridge.

We actually stayed at a bed and breakfast in Berryville, Virginia, which is not too far away. Picking that location allowed us to to have a good launching point for a pretty wide area; we did Luray Caverns one day and Harpers Ferry another. The caverns are absolutely breathtaking, but a bit too far away if you are staying in Harpers Ferry itself.

Wonderful hiking and great views just for driving in the mountains in that area. It's a really a nice inexpensive weekend getaway if you live with a few hours, and if you don't, it's definitely worth folding into an East Coast trip. Only about an hour from DC, for instance, so those can easily be combined. Or if history is your thing, it's just a couple hours from Fredericksburg, which is battlefield central!


@summing - I agree with a lot of what you have to say about Brown. Have you ever read Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks? It is a novelization of Brown's life told from the perspective of one of his children who survived the raid on Harper's Ferry.

It's a beautiful book on its own terms but it is also a really interesting study of Brown's psychology leading up to the raid. Brown was deeply religious and held an apocalyptic view of the bible. Much of his racial politics were inspired by the teachings of the bible. If you are interested check out the book. It's a rich picture of a complicated man.


John's brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was one of the greatest and most overlooked events in American History. Because of the violence that Brown perpetrated he is often cast as a nut. In reality he was a deeply moral man who could not sit idly back as the atrocity of human slavery was carried out across the nation for which he had such high hopes.

Some people say that John Brown was anti democratic because he bypassed the state or any mechanism greater than himself and his family to try to bring about change in the country. But this kind of unhesitating civil disobedience in the face of gross injustice is quintessentially American and furthermore quintessentially Christian. John Brown was a great if strange man whose bold actions and deep morals helped make this country a better place.

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