After dropping off my younger daughter at an overnight camp in West Virginia, my Civil War buff husband drove my fourteen year-old daughter and myself to nearby Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a place he had been dying to take us for years. Harpers Ferry is located a mere hour away from suburban Maryland and a little over an hour from Washington, D.C. It is an affordable and easy day trip taking you back to a town frozen in the mid-1800s.
Harpers Ferry is full of history. George Washington chose it as the site for the U.S. Armory and Lewis and Clark got supplies at Harpers Ferry for their famous expedition. But Harpers Ferry is most famous for abolitionist John Brown. In October 16, 1859, John Brown and his followers seized the U.S. Armory in an attempt to arm slaves. This event killed any hope of reconciliation between the North and the South and helped precipitate the Civil War.
First stop at the Visitor Center to plan your visit. Parking is $10 per vehicle and is good for three days. Free shuttle buses that run from 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. will take you to the Lower Town, the hub of most of the action and the site of the armory and John Brown’s fort. We made the mistake of parking at the train station, where parking is more limited and except for a map, we received no guidance about touring the town.
The Visitor Center or the website will give you a schedule of free park ranger activities. There are events every weekend from Memorial Day until Labor Day on period subjects from apple cider to slavery. Most events take place on the village green, across from the bookshop. We attended a 45-minute program called “Beans Kill More Than Bullets,” where we learned about the medical care and diet of soldiers during the Civil War. Special exhibits were set up all over town with the medical theme. Even better than the medical program was a half hour demonstration of military drills and firing, another free National Park Service event. My favorite new fact is that you needed at least four teeth to qualify as a Union soldier so you could bite the top off a paper cartridge.
To maximize our time, we had a quick lunch at Scoops Ice Cream. The peach ice cream got good reviews. For another break, you can check out Cool Confectionaries, the only historic candy store in the nation. Almost every kind of candy sold here comes with an extensive label recounting the story. You can learn about the history of chocolate, chewing gum, and lollipops. The enthusiastic owner gives you information with every purchase. Cold vintage sodas are also available. Cool Confectionaries was the highlight of our day.
Lower Town Harpers Ferry
Lower Town Harpers Ferry has twenty different buildings that have free admission. The John Brown Museum is the largest of the museums. Artifacts include John Brown’s bible, sword, and a part of the gallows. A 25-minute film about the raid is shown every thirty minutes. Another film “A Place in Time” about the history of Harpers Ferry (17 minutes) is shown across from the bookshop. Both films depict violence and may be difficult for younger children to watch. Additional museums tell the story of the Civil War, Lewis and Clark, Industry, and Education & the Struggle for Equality about the first schools in the South for former slaves. We especially liked Black Voices, where you could listen to the stories of extraordinary African-Americans. We were impressed by the signage in the museums. All of the museums are small, which is good when traveling with little ones with short attention spans.
In addition to the museums, there are a number of 1800s stores on display, including a confectionary, watch store, blacksmith shop, and a dry goods store. Even the public restroom is the site of an old bakery and has signage. A mansion, a tavern, and a boarding house give you a sense of everyday life.
Not only is Harpers Ferry historic and charming, but it is also scenic. It is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge here. You can get a beautiful view from the 1800s stone steps that are part of the Appalachian Trail. Note: These steps are slippery when wet. We also took a short stroll along the Shenandoah River.
The John Brown Wax Museum is the only attraction in town with an admission fee (adults $7, seniors and veterans $6, children 6-12 $5, and under 6 free). It brings to life the story of John Brown from his first discovery of the injustice of slavery as a young boy to his hanging. My husband had my fourteen year-old daughter avoid a few of the gory tableaux, especially the first death of the raid and John Brown with his dying son, because they gave him nightmares as a child. She did catch the last scene where you view John Brown from above walking toward the gallows. John Brown moves his head and even the adults were a little freaked. My daughter thought the museum was “creepy” but I have no doubt that the museum made the story more memorable and it is well done. Note: The museum is not handicapped or stroller accessible. If you want souvenirs, the Harpers Ferry Park Bookshop carries puzzles, postcards, and books for adults and children.
We only had a half a day to visit Harpers Ferry National Park; a full day would have been better. If we had more time, we would have taken a self-guided battlefield driving tour and explored some hiking trails. Other activities for a fee were carriage tours and ghost tours.
We had a delightful afternoon in Harpers Ferry. It is that rare spot that has something that will appeal to all ages and is a good outing in any kind of weather. It is also a great value and not commercial at all. Next year, we will have to take our younger daughter as well.
- Hours: The park is open from dawn to dusk daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Buildings are only open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
- Public Restrooms next to the bookshop in the Bakery. Diaper changing tables in both restrooms.
Photos by Beth Meyer.