I wanted to be outdoors these last few weeks before winter so last Saturday, we made our way to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for some hiking. Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, is the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.
It’s also a pretty little town, with quaint stone buildings growing up the side of a hill and a view that Thomas Jefferson wrote was “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” The regular beneficiaries of that view now are the occupants of the Harpers Ferry Cemetery, which lies just a few feet from the spot where Jefferson stood in 1783, when he observed that worthy scene. Where he stood is now called Jefferson Rock and it’s accessible from the main street via these neat stone steps.
Autumn or not, it still turned out to be much too cold (for fair-weather hikers like us) to hike. So we turned History Tourists instead and darted in and out of the 19th century buildings of downtown Harpers Ferry, now all part of the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.
In 1859, abolitionist and zealot John Brown showed up at Harpers Ferry, intending to capture the federal armory there and secure weapons with which to arm a slave uprising. He and 21 followers got the weapons but not the uprising. The slaves of western Virginia (West Virginia didn’t become a separate state until 1863), it turned out, had no intention of revolting. This was due in some part to the efforts of Frederick Douglas, who had been advising slaves not to cooperate with Brown. Brown was eventually captured by U.S. troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and was tried and hung in nearby Charles Town. John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave goes the song. The grave is in the family plot in upstate New York.
While his body may be in New York, his spirit is still very much in Harpers Ferry and Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park is devoted to keeping the John Brown story alive. We saw the building (reconstructed) that was his headquarters, the blank space that was once the armory, and various other houses and exhibits on Brown and other local history.
Some words about a very important topic: food. There are very few restaurants in the tourist area of town but I can recommend the one that we tried: the Cannonball Deli. It was a tiny place – maybe 8 tables — in the basement of an old house on the main street. It had absolutely no ambiance, but the food was very good and cheap, and the service was great. My $9 falafel wrap was huge and came with a large Greek salad and chips. I took leftovers to work for lunch for two days.
Two weeks ago, a novel about John Brown, called The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, won the National Book Award for best fiction. I haven’t read it yet — I’d like to hear from anyone who has.