The Fifth District's storied history is attracting a growing number of heritage tourists
By Charles Gerena
"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature," Thomas Jefferson said in 1783 as he looked out over Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, this West Virginia town attracts visitors with its natural water gap and deep history.
In 1763, the land purchased by builder and millwright Robert Harper was established as the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry." After George Washington's 1794 recommendation of Harpers Ferry as the site of the United States Armory and Arsenal, the town was transformed into an industrial center.
Harpers Ferry also served as a major transportation hub. Residents could easily access the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal by the mid-1830s. Bridges and boats reduced travel time and facilitated commerce.
Harpers Ferry's economic boom lasted until the Civil War. Abolitionist John Brown and his "army of liberation" took control of the arsenal in October 1859, but were defeated by U.S. Marine troops less than two days later. Soon after, Union and Confederate troops fought for control of the town, which changed hands many times between 1861 and 1865.
This violent history makes Harpers Ferry a popular spot for Civil War buffs today. Currently, the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a National Park Service resource that surrounds the town, attracts between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors each year. According to the West Virginia Division of Tourism, the town was the state's top destination for day travelers in 2004 and among the top destinations for overnight tourists.
Paulette Sprinkle of the Jefferson County Convention & Visitors Bureau describes Harpers Ferry as a "hub and spoke" location. The town is about 30 minutes from Antietam National Battlefield and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, and an hour from Gettysburg. Those who need a break from traditional tourist activities can catch a thoroughbred horse race in Charles Town just 10 minutes to the west, or go "antiquing" in Shepardstown only 22 minutes to the north. Corn mazes, festivals, and outdoor activities like tubing and rafting are among the other offerings available in the immediate vicinity. In addition, the town is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters.
All told, Sprinkle says, Jefferson County attracts 5 million visitors and $505 million in tourism-related spending a year, making it No. 1 in West Virginia. She notes that it is difficult to separate how much of that revenue comes from Harpers Ferry versus Charles Town and other tourist spots. About 4,800 employees work in tourism in Jefferson County, whose total population is 45,000.
Guests have their choice of lodging, with options ranging from motels and hotels to upscale inns and bed and breakfasts located in historic homes. In October, however, finding a room isn't so simple. The fall foliage and the Breeders' Classic in Charles Town draw an especially high number of visitors.
This year, Harpers Ferry is also holding a yearlong celebration of the Niagara Movement, which was founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1905 as the first major civil- rights organization. The group, which is the forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), met in Harpers Ferry in 1906.
Harpers Ferry may be a historical town, but its efforts to keep with the times and meet current demands are paying off. "There's just about something for everybody," says Sprinkle.
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