- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which covers 2,300 acres in a three-state area, is awash in history and natural beauty. So, what to pick on a leisurely weekend?

“I think there is something for everyone,” says Marsha Wassel, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which oversees the park. “I think very young kids enjoy the natural space, and school-age children and their parents like the exhibits.”

There are so many, it could take days to explore everything. The lower town of Harpers Ferry consists of dozens of historic buildings (some, fortunately, home to ice cream shops) that house museum exhibits on themes such as the Civil War, black history, industry, transportation, natural heritage and John Brown.

John Brown?

He was instrumental in the run-up to the Civil War, says John Powell, a park ranger who on a recent Sunday gave a tour of the John Brown Museum. Tours are given frequently, particularly on weekends.

“It wouldn’t be fair to say that he started the Civil War,” Mr. Powell says, “but he pushed the snowball down the hill.”

Who was he? Some say he was crazy, Mr. Powell says. Others say he was an idealist. What we do know, Mr. Powell says, is that the father of 20 children (11 surviving) and sometimes businessman believed in the abolishment of slavery and picked Harpers Ferry to start his war against it on Oct. 17, 1859.

Harpers Ferry — today a pretty place rife with history but not exactly a hub of business and enterprise — was a major center of industry and transportation in the 1800s. It was particularly prominent for producing and storing weapons.

Brown attacked the town’s armory in an attempt to seize 100,000 weapons, which he intended to use in guerrilla warfare to free slaves. His plan didn’t go very well. He and his men were overwhelmed quickly by Col. Robert E. Lee and 90 Marines.

“John Brown’s raid was over in 36 hours,” Mr. Powell says during the tour of the museum, which includes three short films about Brown’s life. “It took a lot longer to hang him — 46 days,” Mr. Powell says.

The last exhibit in the John Brown Museum deals with the importance of civil dissent in a democracy and shows pictures of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and Ford autoworkers in the late 1930s who demonstrated for the right to organize.

“In a democracy, it’s our responsibility to be informed and to speak up,” Mr. Powell says of the final exhibit.

A year and a half after Brown was hanged, the Civil War began. At Harpers Ferry, a museum is devoted to the Maryland Campaign of the war. The campaign resulted in three significant battles in five days, one of which took place in Harpers Ferry. The museum is heavy on text and light on hands-on activities.

The nearby Meriwether Lewis exhibit, though, can be more attractive to families with young children because of its many artifacts and hands-on exhibits.

“It was specifically developed for younger visitors,” Ms. Wassel says. “There are lift-up boards, and the space is relatively small.”

Lewis came to Harpers Ferry in 1803 to prepare for his journey west. He bought dozens of weapons — which are on display — as gifts for the American Indians he expected to meet on his fact-finding mission. Exhibit cases show large knives, pipe tomahawks and gun slings, among other artifacts.

The Black Voices museum, also nearby, is another interactive space, with maps that light up to indicate where in Harpers Ferry the black population — enslaved and free — lived in the pre-Civil War days. Visitors can listen to recordings about prominent blacks who lived in or visited the town, in which the Niagara Movement — predecessor to the NAACP — held a conference in 1906.

If all this seems a little intellectually massive for the very young, Ms. Wassel recommends just enjoying an ice cream at one of the many eateries in historic Harpers Ferry or maybe an afternoon of train spotting — freight trains go by frequently — or maybe a walk-climb down to the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.

“A good family experience in Harpers Ferry can include ice cream, finding a rock down by the river, sitting down to see one of the many movies, hiking a trail. … There are so many ways to intercept information and just enjoy the surroundings.”

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Directions: Take Interstate 270 north to Frederick. Continue west on Interstate 70 at Frederick for about a mile. Take exit 52 onto U.S. Route 340. Continue on 340 for about 22 miles. Cross the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. After crossing the second bridge, continue to the stoplight at the top of the hill. Then turn left into the main entrance of the park.

Admission: $4 per person for those arriving on foot or by bicycle; $6 per private vehicle. Group fees apply for passenger vans that carry more than seven people. Call or see the Web site for details.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.

Parking: Plenty of free parking is available.

Information: 304/535-6029 or www.nps.gov/hafe.

Notes:

• The park offers frequent tours and other activities. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the park will feature a program called “Defend and Protect: Arming America’s Soldiers,” which will include special exhibits and firing demonstrations of historic weapons.

• The historic lower town features dozens of restaurants with light fare and ice cream.

• Wear good shoes whether touring the museums or hiking the trails, which range in difficulty and length from less than a mile to thousands of miles (the Appalachian Trail).

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