Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: A Popular Site on the Fourth of July.

Researched by James R. Heintze. All Rights Reserved.

Harpers Ferry was founded in 1747 by Robert Harper who ran a ferry across the Potomac and Shanandoah rivers, hence the name of the town. In the late 1790s a federal armory was constructed and began operation in 1801. Not long after, the town had become a popular destination for its incredible scenery, with views of the mountains and site where the two rivers merge into one.

View from the Hilltop House with the Shanandoah and Potomac Rivers seen merging below. Photo (2006), taken by the author.

An example of an early Fourth of July celebration occurred in 1809. According to one newspaper,

The anniversary of American independence was celebrated at Harper's Ferry in a style truly elegant. The day was ushered in by a discharge of artillery, and at 11 o'clock the company began to assemble, & at 3 sat dowm to a sumptuous dinner, set out under an extensive arbour prepared for the occasion. The greatest harmony prevailed throughout the whole day, and the Amor Patriae seemed to pervade every breast. After dinner the following toasts were drank, accompanied with the firing of cannon, music, etc. Dr. Charles Brown, president, and Dr. James Wood, vice president.

Seventeen toasts were presented; no. 13 referred to the armory: "May the arms manufactured at Harper's Ferry, never miss fire when pointed at the enemies of our country." (Farmer's Repository, 7 July 1809, 3.)

On July 4, 1820, the day was filled with pomp and ceremony. John Strider presented an oration (printed in the local newspaper) and Charles Wager publicly read the Declaration of Independence "in a chaste, handsome and impressive manner." The assemblage of persons marched "to the Barbecue ground" at "a most enchanting little island, in the Shenandoah River." For the dinner, "all the luxeries that the season and neighborhood could afford were lavishly strewed on the festive board." Later there were toasts offered. Those present at the celebration included Mr. T.B. Evans; Charles Wager; R. Gallaher; John Strider; Mr. R.H. Williamson; William Graham. That evening there was a ball that lasted until midnight. (Farmer's Repository,. 12 July 1820, 2-3.)

Another notable event occurred on July 4, 1823, when citizens of Harpers Ferry gathered together on "the Island in the Potomac, opposite the Armory, and in view of the stupendous rocks which skirt the Maryland side, where the towering Eagle, proud emblem of America, rears its young in security and safety." It was described in the event notice as "a spot remarkable for romantic beauty and wildness of natural scenery." That day P.C. MacGabe read the Declaration of Independence and John Strider delivered the customary oration. (Richmond Enquirer, 22 July 1823, 4.)

The dedication of the construction of the B & O Railroad (at Baltimore) and C & O Canal (at upper Georgetown) occurred on the same day, July 4, 1828. Eventually, as the two systems were constructed, their paths met at Harpers Ferry, thereby creating a very busy intersection for goods transported to the West and travelers who used the small town as a site to rest and enjoy the cool air and scenery. In 1856, a trip to Harpers Ferry on the packet boat Argo started off from Georgetown at 6 a.m., taking 12 hours to reach its destination. To us this seems to be a demanding trip, perhaps not worth the effort, yet among all of the excursions offered for the holiday that year, the editor of the local newspaper considered the Harper's Ferry trip the most attractive proposal:

Decidedly the cheapest and most desirable excursion which we have seen advertised for the Fourth, is the one which is going to Harper's Ferry on the fine packet Arago [sic]. Every inducement is offered the seekers of pleasure of recreation to avail themselves of its advantages. Only think of it; for the small sum of $3.50 you can have the pleasure of riding over one hundred and twenty miles, seeing beautiful and romantic scenery, the government works at the Ferry, feast uppon all the delicacies of the season, and that, too, without any fear of being blown up or run off the track. (Evening Star, 1 July 1856, 3.)

An example of a C & O Canal packet boat: the Canal Clipper (in dry dock) at Great Falls, Maryland. Photo (2006), taken by the author.

The guests danced the night away at the United States Hotel and returned the next day arriving at Fisher's Lock, four miles above Georgetown (the water had been let out of the Canal below that point). Omnibuses were waiting for the passengers to bring them back into town (Evening Star, 1 and 7 July 1856, 1 and 2 respectively. For an article that describes a trip on the Canal, see "Trip Up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal," National Intelligencer, 8-9 July 1839, 2 and 3, respectively).

In the 1880s the B & O Railroad offered Fourth of July excursion tickets from Washington, D.C., at a round trip price of $1.25, children, 65 cents. The Harpers Ferry attraction described in one newspaper article was its “mountain scenery, swings, croquet, boating, etc. and music and dancing on Byrne’s Island, free of charge.” Refreshments were provided by the Chester County Ice Cream Company. Those interested in this trip could purchase tickets at Abraham’s railroad ticket office in Washington. The outing for the B&O excursion to Harper's Ferry on July 4, 1880, was mostly booked. However, the Washington Excursion Company took about 500 persons from the railroad depot to Harper's Ferry. The 1884 excursion on the B & O had 629 persons take advantage of the day and the 1886 excursion has 14 railroad cars full of excursionists (Washington Post, 30 June 1880, 3; 24 June 1882; 4, 17 June 1883, 1; 5 July 1884, 1; 6 July 1886, 2). Fred E. Woodward wrote a charming description of his visit to Harpers Ferry in June 1883 and describes the old arsenal as well as the town’s buildings: “three churches, a hotel, a dozen or more stores and four-score houses, the latter mostly of rough stone with wooden balconies clustered together near the depot” (“At Harper’s Ferry,” Washington Post, 10 June 1883, 5).

The Hilltop House, one of the historic bed and board establishments high atop the hill and overlooking downtown Harpers Ferry, was a popular place to board not only for the accommodations but also for the fantastic views of the area. Dating from 1888 the hotel boasted many notable visitors including Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, Pearl Buck and Alexander Graham Bell. The original structure was destroyed by fire on December 11, 1912 ("Hilltop Hotel Burned," Washington Post, 12 December 1912, 3). After the hotel was rebuilt, proprietor Thomas S. Lovett advertised Hilltop House as an ideal place to spend the Fourth of July. In 1916, rates were $2.50-3 daily and $12-20, weekly. (Washington Post, 3 July 1916, 5.) Lovett had other businesses in Harpers Ferry, as well.

During the mid-1950s, the Hilltop House became a venue for local artists' exhibitions. In 1956 the first Summer Art Exhibition at Hilltop House was launched and in the following year, the day of preview of the art works commenced on July 4. The exhibit was open to all area artists and as expected, one could see artists’paintings of West Virginia landscape. Prizes of “all-expense holidays at Hilltop House” were awarded. (Washington Post, 16 June 1957, E7).

Hilltop House, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. View of front entrance. Photo (2006), taken by the author.

This page last updated July 2009.

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