Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
The history of Harpers Ferry has few parallels in the American Drama. It is more than one event, one date, or one individual. It involves a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history. Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War, and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.
John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and he selected Harpers Ferry as his starting point. Determined to seize the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal and to use the Blue Ridge Mountains for guerrilla warfare, abolitionist Brown launched his raid on Sunday evening, October 16, 1859. His 21-man "army of liberation" seized the Armory and several other strategic points. Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, Brown was captured in the Armory fire engine house (now known as "John Brown's Fort") when U.S. Marines stormed the building.
Brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason, of conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown's short-lived raid failed, but his trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and headed the country toward civil war.
The Civil War had a profound and disastrous effect on Harpers Ferry, leaving a path of destruction that wrecked the town's economy and forced many residents to depart forever. Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.
Following the Civil War, New England Freewill Baptist missionaries acquired several vacant Armory buildings on Camp Hill and, in 1867, started Storer College, an integrated school designed primarily to educate former slaves but open to students of all races and both genders. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881.
By the end of the 19th century, the promise of freedom and equality for blacks had been buried by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To combat these injustices, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans created the Niagara Movement, which held its second conference n the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner to the NAACP.
In 1954, legal segregation was finally ended by the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education. A year later Storer College closed its doors. Today the National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.
The United States Armory and Arsenal, established here in 1799, transformed Harpers Ferry from a remote village into an industrial center. Between 1801 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols, and employed, at times, over 400 workers. Inventor John H. Hall pioneered interchangeable firearms manufacture at his Rifle Works between 1820-1840, and helped lead the change from craft-based production to manufacture by machine.
The convergence here of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the mid-1830s inaugurated an era of economic and industrial growth that lasted until the Civil War. Trains and boats reduced travel time from days to hours and served as avenues for local commerce. German and Irish laborers who helped to build the railroad and canal later settled in the area and diversified the local culture. The ferry service operated by Robert Harper in the mid-1700s became obsolete as bridges spanned the rivers. Even George Washington promoted commerce in the region as first president of the Patowmack Company, which was formed in 1785 to permit boats of "shallow draft" to navigate the Potomac River. Today, only the railroad remains as an active reminder of the town's rich transportation heritage.
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