Two months since our wedding, Amy and I still had not gone on a honeymoon for lack of time and money; so we decided to go on a quick weekend getaway to Harpers Ferry, WV, that famous little historical town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. To stay relatively cheap and completely car-less, we opted to take the commuter train, and stay at a place right by the station in Lower Town. Just the town itself and the immediate walkable area offered far more than enough historical and mild sport activity to fill a weekend.
More after the jump.
To get there, we took MARC. I used to ride the commuter train back in my Baltimore days — but never on the Brunswick Line, which has only two trips either way which extend beyond the Brunswick terminus to Harpers Ferry, both timed well for commuting workers — and not so well for working budget honeymooners. Fortunately our proximity to Union Station made it easy to catch the 7:15 PM Brunswick line to Martinsburg, which goes through Harpers Ferry around 8:45 PM. In summer while it’s still bright out before 9 PM, you even get a decent view of the bridge, river, town, and environs as the train approaches the stop.
Our residence for the weekend was The Towns Inn, a guest house with three bedrooms above a local pub and eatery on High Street, right in Lower Town (or on its outskirts), just a few steps from the historical core of Harpers Ferry — and more importantly, right around the corner from the frozen custard vendors.
The innkeeper had left the keys for us in a basket outside her door, though she was still in her office, where she received our check, briefed us on house rules and locations of drink and disposable cutlery, congratulated us on our wedding, and gave us a complimentary basket of wine and cheese.
The room itself, called “The Appalachian Room,” was the one guest room in the house with its own bathroom — and a lovely slate tub. Nicely furnished with comfy chairs, a mini-fridge, and a full bed, the room’s sole drawback was that it was cooled only by a bothersome portable air conditioner whose drip tray had to be drained every few hours. (This was due to a building code which barred historic buildings such as this one from having box-type air conditioning units installed in windows facing toward the street. The innkeeper told me that at any other time of year, the cool mountain air renders the problem academic.) Strangely enough, we had a grated hole in the floor with a jalousy-type vent lever which let us peer down into the eatery below. I did not consider this so much a bug as a feature, perhaps some antiquated mode of ventilation or intra-floor communication dating back to the house’s days as an 18th century family residence.
Day 1: Maryland Heights Trail
The intention was to wake up early enough on our first day to be out on the trail at 6 AM. This, of course, did not happen, and we didn’t get out till about 8:30. To get to the trail, we walked over the railroad bridge to C&O Canal Lock 33 (to think that just the weekend before we had ridden a boat through Lock 4 in Georgetown), turned right, and walked the towpath to Lock 34, near where a sign marks a bridge leading to the trail across the road. Inexplicably, the gate closing the trail off to bikes and motor vehicles bore a sticker advising visitors to help protect the “desert environment,” though I saw no sand or cacti.
There are two parts to the Maryland Heights Trail: Overlook Cliffs and Old Stone Fort. Both are strenuous, the Old Stone Fort much more so, but we were aiming for the Cliffs fork as a quicker scenic hike. The trail gets rather steep at points, but is not difficult, with no climbing or clambering required, going through an interesting mix of geologic levels transitioning from wavy layers of sedimentary bedrock to lush, green-covered soil, back to stark bedrock at the cliffs. After much up-and-down walking and a stop at the site of an old Union Naval Battery, we reached the Cliffs, to be rewarded with a sweeping view of the town, the rivers, and the landscape for miles around. After an hour of taking in the view while snapping photos and eating mixed nuts from a bag, we headed back down, stopping at the “desert” gate to catch a macro shot of a butterfly that rested there.
Tubing the Potomac
As we walked back to town along the C&O, I got River Riders’ phone number off the side of a passing bus and called to get info on some tubing for the afternoon and schedule a pickup at the Inn. (You’ll remember that we came here without a car, but both major watersport providers in the Harpers Ferry area — River Riders and Butts Tubes — provide free shuttle service from town and back with purchase of an activity package. I picked River Riders just because their bus happened to pass by first.)
Two options are offered for tubing: flatwater and whitewater. Flatwater is, of course, much more relaxing, but the route occurs along a section of the Shenandoah much further upriver from Harpers Ferry, without any scenic view of the town, so we went for the whitewater option, which goes right under the same bridge we had crossed that morning, and affords a view of the town from the river below — to complement the view we had just gotten from above. (River Riders map here)
The van from River Riders picked us up just as we were finishing up lunch at the Inn (actually the guy had been waiting a bit, because someone at River Riders had given him a pickup time twenty minutes earlier than we had scheduled), and the trip to River Riders was short and quick. On arrival, you sign a voucher, pay in the shop, get a paper bracelet so they know what tube to give you, watch a safety video with all the other tubers around the outside tables, then get your life vest and tube before getting on the bus, which drops the tubers off near a little beach off Sandy Hook road on the Maryland side, about a quarter mile up the Potomac from town.
Whitewater though the course may be called, with the low water levels that come of a mostly dry midsummer, it turned out to be a relaxing tube ride downstream with just occasional rocks and rapids to provide thrill. Being more used to kayaks and bancas, I’d never been tubing before, and it turned out a lot more fun than I expected. Hit my butt twice on submerged rocks, though.
After passing by the town and under the bridges, we hit the joining of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and the water took a turn for the smelly, with a disconcerting rise in smell and algae clumpiness. It was something of a relief after that point to hit the dirt beach which served as pickup point, and haul our tubes and dry bag up a sloping trail to the River Riders bus.
Just an addendum to the tubing experience: our dropoff bus back to town was aboard a secondhand school bus that River Riders had just purchased from the county. It was just the two of us with the school bus driver — who actually did work for the school system as a bus driver. (Turns out the watersports companies purchase these old buses from the county for awesomely low prices, like in the hundreds.) It was great fun to ride this big honking school bus right into Harpers Ferry Lower Town and get dropped off at the Inn like we were on a field trip.
As we were finishing up a fish and chips dinner at the Armory Pub, we noticed a crowd of people gathering nearby for the ghost tour, so we joined in. The tour is just as much about quirky Harpers Ferry historical trivia as it was about its ghosts. The tour guide, a kindly granddaughter of the original ghost tour lady Shirley Dougherty, told us of the “LIFE-LIKE LUSTRE” that haunted John Brown’s wide open eyes after his hanging, and of how Dangerfield Newby would sometimes appear in Hog Alley after his death (as a black man in baggy pants, imagine that), and of the doctor who used the cave under the Secret Six tavern balcony to perform experiments on stray dogs and cats and claimed he would come back from the dead but didn’t come back and instead got his skull dug up later for a game of football between some unwitting youngsters.
But most interesting to me was the ghost tour guide’s own Christian testimony, which she shared with us near the end of the walk at the train station. There was a point after she had trusted in Jesus for her salvation that she quit the ghost tour, but had also previously promised her [Catholic] grandmother that she would carry on the legacy. Today she continues the tour, but also believes that the ghosts of which she speaks are not wandering souls, but angels — some heavenly, many fallen — manifesting in ways understandable to the people who see them. It was a good end to a walk which I had minor doubts about, but for which I was willing to suspend disbelief to hear some fascinating history.
That night, we slept, and I dreamt of Screaming Jenny.
Day 2: The John Brown Wax Museum
The Inn was just 56 feet from the Wax Museum, so we could not miss dropping by this lovely relic of early 1960s educational kitsch. After paying the $7/person entrance fee to the old lady at the entrance and going through the turnstile, we entered a long, winding, green corridor which went up and down through the old building, taking us past various windowed tableaus depicting John Brown’s life. True to the promise of making history come “alive in sound and animation,” a few wax tableaus featured large green buttons labeled, appropriately enough, “PLEASE PUSH BUTTON,” which would trigger anything from the simple playback of a tinny narration to a spectacle of flashing lights and sounds of battle at John Brown’s fort.
Probably one of the most notable animations in the whole exhibit is the death of Hayward Shepherd, a black baggage handler at the rail station who was the first victim of John Brown’s raid. He is depicted lying by the tracks in a red shirt, eyes wide, while a motor installed in the wax figure’s chest simulates his labored breathing — complete with a loud mechanical wheeze which, with some imagination, might evoke a death rattle.
The last scene in the wax museum shows Wax John Brown ascending the steps to the gallows, his head bowed. Pushing the button here begins a *cough* stirring account of his legacy, narrated over brass strains of “John Brown’s Body / Battle Hymn of the Republic,” while Wax John Brown suddenly raises his head to stare at you, his wax eyes filled with the same LIFE LIKE LUSTRE brought on by his dream of the abolition of slavery, haunting you to the end of your days.
This was such a special place in Harpers Ferry that it merited its own dedicated photoset.
After a walk through and around the museums and restored/simulated Civil War-era sights of Lower Town and a lunch of very creamy broccoli salad and crab pinwheels at the Quartermaster’s Tavern, we ascended the Stone Steps to Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, then climbed farther still, past the ruins of the old Episcopalian Church, up farther till we came to the place where Thomas Jefferson once stood to view the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac, a view which he said was worth crossing the Atlantic to see. The famous rock on which he stood is, sadly, vulnerable to the forces of erosion, graffiti, and eager tourist-tipping, so today it is supported by four stone pillars, and standing upon it is not allowed.
After the Rock, we ascended further up the stone steps to see what was above, till we came upon Harper Cemetery. After a rest stop in the shade, we wandered the headstones for a bit, and then made the slightly tiring trip back down, for egg custard.
Egg Custard, Bayonet, Virginius
Egg custard deserves its own section. I got a medium orange-raspberry cone, and it was amazing. Wow. Just, whoa. Heaven on a cone. Melting fast.
Oh, and we found a stray bayonet in the grass, left over from the rifle demonstration. We promptly dropped it off at the Union recruiting tent, where, amusingly enough, the soldier reenactor passed it on to one of the ladies, saying, “Must be from one of your guys.”
We dined on pasta and a veggie sandwich at the Secret Six Tavern, then spent the twilight hours wandering around Virginius Island, bothering some deer, examining the ruins of the old paper mill, viewing the Shenandoah River, and watching CSX train engines rumble by on the old railroad; but we had to cut short our hike there as it got too dark.
We slept early that night, so we could get up at 4 AM and wander down to a dark spot to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Originally we had meant to go over to The Point, that easternmost part of Harpers Ferry which juts out into the river, but a small roadblock in the middle of the path going under the railroad bridge made it clear that NPS has declared The Point closed at night. (Plus, it was rather dark and spooky.) Instead, we plopped down on the benches right beside John Brown’s Fort and craned our necks up, seeing a shooting star or two every few minutes. In an hour and a half of watching, I think we saw about twenty meteors, one bright enough to leave a visible trail.
I tried taking long exposure time lapses of the sky, but not one came out. We did keep an eye on our surroundings, though, since it was dark and we were near a bridge and a tunnel, plus the building is reputed to be occasionally haunted by John Brown. The darkness did make for an interesting photo of the lamplit buildings of Lower Town.
The Trip Home
There are only two MARC trains back to DC in the morning: 5:51 AM and 6:56 AM. If you don’t have a car and you miss either of those trains, you’re stuck waiting for the Amtrak Capitol Limited at noon, and if you miss that, you’re stuck till the next day. (Unless there’s a bus or a taxi service I didn’t know about?) We managed to wake up for the 6:56 AM train, and waited in the station as we munched on cinnamon buns from the J. Brown Cafe. Hanging on to the station door was a very large Dobsonfly.
A freight train passed, then the MARC train from Martinsburg arrived. Note to newbie MARC riders at Harpers Ferry: the train boards at front and back. We were waiting around the middle.
Snoozy trip home, back in our own bed at 8:30 AM, nap, and at work by Monday lunchtime. Thus ended our Honeymoon at Harpers Ferry. More stuff from the weekend:
- Full photoset with detailed titles and captions
- John Brown Wax Museum photoset
- Amy’s photos
- Also see my companion post on DC Metroblogging about the logistics of a car-less budget weekend trip to Harpers Ferry from Washington.