Harpers Ferry

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry, town (1990 pop. 308), Jefferson co., easternmost W Va., at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers; inc. 1763. The town is a tourist attraction, known for its history and its scenic beauty. John Brown's seizure of the U.S. arsenal there on Oct. 16, 1859, and the town's subsequent strategic importance during the Civil War, when it was considered the key to the Shenandoah valley, brought it into national prominence. In 1747, Robert Harper, a millwright, established a ferry at the junction of the two rivers—hence the town's name. The U.S. arsenal was located there in 1796, and by the mid-19th cent., Harpers Ferry was an important arms-producing center, with mills, numerous gun factories, and huge stores of weapons and ammunition. The development of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and of the Baltimore & Ohio RR increased its importance, making it a transportation link between the Ohio valley and the East. During the Civil War it was primarily held by Union soldiers but changed hands a number of times. Its industrial plant was repeatedly destroyed by troops of both sides. Harpers Ferry never recovered economically, and a series of devastating floods in the late 19th cent. ended all hopes for revival. Despite continued flooding during the 20th cent., many old buildings remain. Of interest are the fire engine house in which John Brown was captured; the John Brown Museum; and the old steps, hand-carved (early 1800s) into the natural stone, which lead to Robert Harper's house (1775–82) and to Jefferson Rock. The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (est. 1963; 2,343 acres/949 hectares) attracts many visitors (see National Parks and Monuments, table).

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