West Virginia As Written By A Real West Virginian, August 2008
Sherpherdstown, Harpers Ferry
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Shepherdstown claims to be the oldest town in West Virginia, having been formed around 1734. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It does my heart good to see people living, shopping and eating in these lovely old buildings.

This old courthouse is now part of Shepherd College.

Nobody else was up for ice cream, but I couldn't pass up this local store, especially when I saw that they had peanut butter and chocolate ice cream.

I took this picture. I want to live in that skinny building.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. This lovely viewpoint at Maryland Heights is well worth the 2-mile hike.

Because of its strategic location on the river and railroad, Harpers Ferry saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Stonewall Jackson oversaw the largest surrender of Northern troops here, and runaway slaves sought refuge here. The town was also home to one of the earliest integrated schools: Storer College, which was designed primarily to educate former slaves but served students of all races. Frederick Douglass was one of the college trustees.

Harpers Ferry is probably best known for being raided in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown.



John Brown planned to raid the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, arm the local slaves and then march southward through Virginia, drawing slaves away from the plantations along the way and eventually causing the southern economy to collapse. The plan called for 4500 men to participate in the raid.

However, many of his backers, including influential abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, thought that seizing a federal facility was a bad idea and withdrew their support. Only 19 of the expected 4500 men appeared. After two days of battling the local militia, Brown and his men were eventually captured. Brown was tried for committing treason against Virginia, murdering five people and conspiring with slaves to rebel. His lawyer argued that Brown could not be guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty, that he himself had not killed anyone, and that the raid’s failure proved that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Brown was found guilty on all counts and hanged. Being tried in a pro-slavery state (it was still Virginia at the time) probably didn’t help much.

At least his heart was in the right place.

I’m always on the lookout for the bizarre, so I was excited to learn that Harpers Ferry has a wax museum dedicated to John Brown’s life “from the cradle to the gallows”. Located in a labyrinthine, dimly lit, three-story house that was built prior to the 1859 raid, the exhibits haven’t been changed since their creation in the 1950s. With their frizzy fake hair, moth-eaten clothes and wide-eyed glassy stares, Brown and company are the stuff of nightmares, but updating this place would just be wrong.

A male voice narrates each scene in a melodramatic baritone. In the final scene, Brown stands upon the steps to the gallows, his head bowed. As the Battle Hymn of the Republic swells grandly over the loudspeakers, Brown’s head suddenly raises and he looks upward as he prepares to “drop into eternity”.

Here’s John Brown in Kansas, throwing down with some pro-slavery settlers, who were apparently wore matching plaid shirts to distinguish themselves from anti-slavery settlers. John looks a bit like Abraham Lincoln, who kindly referred to him as a “misguided fanatic”.

Train trestle, Harpers Ferry.

Catholic church, Harpers Ferry.

Barn near Harpers Ferry. The Eastern Panhandle is rife with these postcard scenes.

West Virginia As Written By A Real West Virginian, August 2008


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West Virginia 2008
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