Where to even begin? I am going to talk about the park first and then in the next post specifically talk about the Junior Ranger badge, because I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and was met with a vast historical crossroad. I knew about the John Brown revolt, but was entirely fuzzy on the details. I had heard about the arsenal and armory, but again, I lacked actual knowledge. When we first arrived we parked at the visitor center and went inside to request the badge book and met our first Rangers of the day. We were directed towards a shuttle that would take us to the town in order to mediate the limited parking in the civil war era town.
When we exited the shuttle it was clear which direction we should walk. The driver assured us she would be there every 10-15 minutes because it was a bit cold to be out at a bus stop with the children, especially since they refuse to zip their coats. It was a beautiful, clear and cold day. As you can the path was fairly fresh and the park wasn’t that busy. I was surprised at how much TOWN there actually is. Most historic parks are a few buildings, or maybe like at Smoky, cabins in the woods and small gathered buildings. But this is really an entire town, with avenues and boulevards. As we approached the first building we came to was the “Bookstore,” which of course definitely was our starting point. I was only a tiny bit disappointed to find that it was really the gift shop, though they did sell books. It was a convenient place to buy pencils (.37) and colored pencils, because all the coloring objects were left in the car. As we continued on down the street there were exhibits in almost every building, it was one of the most interesting layouts I have ever seen. Our next stop was a period haberdashery. It was gated off but you would walk into a small fenced area just large enough to check it out while still shutting the door. The other wall was lined with stacks of trousers and shirts, shelved by size. The plaque (if you can read it) talks about the changes in manufacturing of cheaper goods and how that was changing consumption.
The entire town was pretty much laid out with each little building holding a specific encapsulated exhibit, which was really interesting. Each subject was handled with depth and detail. Some like the above being a very simple and straight forward concept. To much more in depth things, like Storer College and the Niagara Movement. Storer College was founded in 1865 to train African American teachers and was the first institution of higher learning that Black Americans could attend. It operated until 1955. There is so much information in the exhibit, I kept calling my kids to read them poignant passages, but it was a lot for them. Lemon was particularly entranced by the miniature of the original school set up, pictured below on the right. One of the passages I did get them to listen to was the guiding principles of the The Niagara Movement which are similar enough to the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights that my 8 year old said “Didn’t they already have these laws?” And the answer was of course “YES. But not for everyone.”
Harpers Ferry does divide itself into these basic collections, John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, Industrial Technology, Transportation, and African-American History. There is also an exhibit solely covering it’s wetland topography and natural resources. There were so many personal stories and interesting facts. For example there is a story of a slave who was freed and was able to take a loan to buy his wife and child free, but had to use them as collateral for the loan. Industrial gains like the conical bullet were made at Harpers Ferry, before that musket balls were the only option. Also did you know a cannon ball could go 4 miles? That is a crazy amount of distance. The entire experience on site was like this, heart wrenching history and random facts, it made me feel quite off balance most of the time we were there. Navigating tone and gravity with the kids was equally difficult, but at the same time it was nice to be in a place that made me feel as uncomfortable as much of our country’s history should make us. Below you see the 4 mile cannon ball, a view from the train station and the building that was the last stand of John Brown.
I could spend thousands of words describing the Harpers Ferry Exhibits, it was like a salad of American History with every bite having something familiar. So many sites are insular, for example Johnstown flood. It’s about a flood, in Johnstown caused by the robber baron industrialist 1%. Definitely important, and there is much more you could learn, but it’s finite. Harpers Ferry is a cross road of history. Perfectly positioned for industry with two rivers for power, rich in natural resources for manufacturing (specifically of munitions, but other things as well), a hot bed for Abolition but also a stronghold for slavery, such a pivotal Civil War role, central in the expansion of Train vs. Canal travel as part of both the B&O Railroad (Thanks Monopoly!) AND the C&O canal. Every plaque I read had a name on it I knew, but at the same time I have never felt so strongly that my education in American history was lacking. Which is saying something because I focused on American Lit in college, so I read a TON of American history for context and comparisons. How could I have failed to learn, with depth, about this historical crossroad? I am so thankful for the preservation of the National Parks!!