Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 4: Harpers Ferry National Park (and yes, that name is grammatically correct)

The morning of our 4th day of our vacation, we packed up our car and headed to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Both Pennsylvania and West Virginia irked me with no good state welcome sign, so the national park photos are going to have to suffice.

Harpers Ferry was a wonderful little surprise for me. Before I started planning this trip, I had never heard of Harpers Ferry. Yet I constantly saw it mentioned in books and trip reports as the third battlefield you should visit, behind Gettysburg and Antietam. Perhaps its because the three parks make a nice triangle, and are close together (despite being in three different states).

Anyways, the more I read about Harpers Ferry, the more I liked it. Basically, its a civil war battlefield, a place of historical importance, and a beautiful natural spot and park, all rolled into one. Its located in West Virginia, right at the confluence of the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River, with the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding you. Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry, and climbed up to what is now known as "Jefferson's Rock," and declared it , "perhaps one of the stupendous scenes in nature," and worth the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean for Europeans. 

Believe it or not, we didn't actually visit the battlefield here. (hiding in shame) We spent so much time at the rest of the park, that we needed to leave to keep to our schedule. So I don't have any battlefield pictures to show. The battle was fought higher up than the town. Its a beautiful ride down to the town of Harpers Ferry, and your first big sight are these old railroad tracks. That are still operational. 

The boys wanted to do the Junior Ranger program, so we spent 1.5 hours listening to a great Ranger talk.

 It was only on the schedule for 45 minutes. I didn't mind getting more history out of him, but clearly 1.5 hours was a bit long for the youngest member of Team Danger.

We learned that the town grew in prominence when a man by the name of Robert Harper established a ferry service across the rivers.

In 1796, the United States government located one of its arsenal factories here, meaning that gun-making was the bread and butter of this town. If you are going to take two little boys to a historical town, what better place to go to than one that is famous for guns and arsenals?

Industrialization also brought the C&O Canal to Harpers Ferry, along with the B&O Railroad (and since parts of the town were on the Underground Railroad, and Lewis & Clark stopped here, and because the armory produced weapons for the War of 1812, this meant we were actually in SIX national parks/sites at once - extra passport stamps. Score!). They also dropped the apostrophe, making Harper's Ferry into Harpers Ferry. I was grateful for this explanation, because typing the name had really bothered me these past few months.

Harpers Ferry grew in prominence, and was one of the largest towns in the US for a while. Then, the Civil War happened. Harpers Ferry changed hands between the North and the South eight times during the Civil War  - can you imagine?? Eight times!! But even worse for the town, when the Civil War first broke out, Harpers Ferry was still part of Virginia (West Virginia did not achieve statehood until 1863). The Union did not want the South to get the hundreds of thousands of ammunition and guns on hand at Harpers Ferry, so they burned the factory to the ground. Without the arsenal in production, 90% of the town had no work, so they packed up and left. Today, there are only 131 homes in the town.

But because the town basically came to an abrupt end back in 1861, most of the town has remained as it was then, and its a beautiful historic town.

Part of the town belongs to the park service; part is privately owned. All of it is fantastic. It was one living history museum after another, and I. LOVED. IT.

The town is also famous for its resident abolitionist, John Brown. You can read about him here, but he was one semi-crazy guy who believed whole-heartedly that slavery was evil, and that it was okay to be violent to end slavery. He conducted a raid on the US government's arsenal in 1859, where, oddly, it was Robert E. Lee who was sent by the US to quash his raid. John Brown holed up in this fort, and it was here that they fought their battle.

When our ranger tour was over, we took a break for lunch, and started to work on our Junior Ranger Books (and Ryan played with his trading cards, a frequent sight during the trip. We loved our Civil War trading cards!)

Next, we climbed up to Jefferson's Rock. That was one steep climb!

But the views were worth it.

We also went even further up, to the cemetery.

Where, oddly, one can geocahce. Good job, brother, finding it!

The town's episcopal church is no more.

But the catholic church is still holding strong.

We then headed back down to the town, to visit more of the little museums/houses, and to work on our Junior Ranger books.

I was a bit stunned to see those rickety old train tracks are still operational.

Other highlights of the town included Arsenal Square, for our little Arsenal soccer player.

And this home, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I'd promised Alex we would see the Underground Railroad on this trip, but that's easier said than done. It sounds much more exotic than it really is, which is a series of above-ground buildings.

We also really enjoyed the historical costume chest. :) Which was full of dresses and ... hats for boys. That's okay. Team Danger likes their hats.

Finally, our Junior Ranger mission was completed, and it was time to get sworn in.

Our next stop for the day was a bit of a drive, albeit a stunningly beautiful drive. We'd spent about twice as long as I had planned at Harpers Ferry, so we decided to skip the battlefield.

Up next: Shenandoah!

Day 1: Blackbirds, Canals and Poison Ivy
Day 2: Antietam and Monocacy National Battlefields
Day 3: Gettysburg's 150th Anniversary
Day 4: Harpers Ferry National Park (and yes, that name is grammatically correct)

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