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Mysterious Hauntings: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The American Civil War, which erupted in 1861, was the bloodiest, deadliest war ever fought on American soil. Decades of tensions between the northern and southern states over slavery, states's rights, and westward expansion finally boiled over after Lincoln took office in 1860. At that point, seven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Before the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, 620,000 of the 2.4 million men sent into battle were killed. Millions more were injured before the war's end. With so many casualties, it's no wonder that Civil War sites in the United States are so steeped in ghostly lore. Hundreds of thousands of men met bloody, gruesome ends on those battlefields and in the makeshift hospitals intended for wounded soldiers. It's said that to this day, in some places, the war may still be raging in spectral form.

Harpers Ferry, located in the lower Shenandoah Valley, has a reputation for being the most haunted town in all of West Virginia. Its long and storied history starts in 1733, when a squatter named Peter Stephens settled on a patch of land where the Potomac River meets the Shenandoah River. This area is also known as The Point, and it was from here that Peter established a ferry to run across the Potomac, taking passengers from what was then Virginia over to Maryland. The land actually belonged to Lord Fairfax, and in 1751, a builder and millwright named Robert Harper bought 126 acres. He also paid Peter Stephens 30 guineas for his squatting rights.



Wikipedia states that Robert Harper was born in 1718 in Oxford Township near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was brought to the Shenandoah Valley when asked by a group of Quakers to build a meeting house for them. While traveling the area, he quickly noticed the potential in the latent water power from both the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at such an easily accessible location. In 1761, ten years after buying the land, Robert was granted the right to establish a ferry crossing the Potomac. Just two years later, in 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of Shenandoah at Mr. Harper's Ferry. Over time the staggeringly long name was shortened and the apostrophe removed from Harper's name.

Thomas Jefferson and his daughter, Patsy, paid a visit to the beautiful little town on October 25, 1783. They stopped off there while traveling to Philadelphia together. The nation's third President called Harpers Ferry, "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature." He also said that it was "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." After stopping over on his first visit there, the humble town became one of his favorite getaways. He would even write much of his Notes on the State of Virginia while staying in Harpers Ferry. This is likely what led to the entire county being named for Jefferson.

George Washington made his way to the scenic beauty of what was still Virginia in the summer of 1785. As president of the Potowmack Company, he was there to finish improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries. It was his job to oversee the development and determine the need for bypass canals. His familiarity with the area led him to propose it as a site for a new US armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family even moved there, staying in the area for quite some time. His nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859. Washington's brother, Charles, would go on to found Charles Town, also located in Jefferson County.

In 1796, the federal government bought 125 acres of land from Robert Harper's heirs for the purpose of building an armory and arsenal. Construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. It was one of just two such facilities in the United States, with the other being in Springfield, Massachusetts. These armories produced most of the US Army's small arms.

Harpers Ferry transformed in the sixty years between 1801-1861, becoming a water-powered industrial center. Before the armory was destroyed in 1861, it had produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols. Inventor, John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in firearms. He would manufacture his weapons at the Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry from 1820 to 1840. His M1819 Hall rifle was the first breech-loading weapon utilized by the US Army.

The Potomac Canal had been the town's first man-made transportation system, but it ceased transporting passengers in 1828. It sat on what was then the Virginia side of the river. A portion of the canal was then channeled to run the armory's machinery. As the industrialization of Harpers Ferry continued, the Chesapeake and Ohio canals reached the town on the Maryland side of the river in 1833. These canals connected Harpers Ferry with Washington D.C. They, along with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, began competing for right-away on the very narrow patch of land downstream from Harpers Ferry.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, or B&O as it's more commonly known, began servicing the town after a protracted dispute between them and the Canal Company. They would pick their passengers up from a bridge that had been provided by the Wager family, a very rich and prominent family in the area. They also built the Wager Hotel right across the street from the train station. The bridge they provided connected the growing town to Sandy Hook, Maryland. For a few years in the 1830s, Sandy Hook had been known as the terminus of the railroad. In 1836, the first railroad junction in the country started in Harpers Ferry when the Winchester and Potomac Railroad opened. Its line ran from the mountainous jewel of the Shenandoah Valley, to Charles Town, then to Winchester, Virginia.

Mills and other water-powered industries were built on Virginius Island. With the exception of the arsenal, Virginius Island housed all of the town's manufacturing facilities. Working-class housing was also available to those working out on the island in boarding or row houses. If Harpers Ferry was the center of weapons and ammunition production in the area, then Virginius Island was the booming mecca of industrialism.



On October 16, 1859, abolitionist, John Brown led a group of 22 men, including himself, on a raid of the armory and arsenal. To this day he is still celebrated for his motivation to lead the raid. Freedom of the enslaved in America. Brown was born in 1800 in Connecticut and raised in Ohio by a staunchly Calvinist and anti-slavery family. Throughout much of his adult life, Brown tried his hand at many different businesses, but failed at them all. At the age of 42, he declared bankruptcy and had more than 20 lawsuits filed against him.

His life was forever changed when he attended his very first abolitionist meeting in Cleveland. He was so moved by the gathering and the words spoken that he immediately declared his new-found dedication for the cause of abolishing slavery for good. As early as 1848, he was already planning an insurrection.

Brown and his five sons went to Kansas in the 1850s to fight pro-slavery forces in a battle for territory. Pro-slavery men raided the abolitionist town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856. Brown and his sons were looking for revenge after the attack. On May 25, they attacked three cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek, killing five men with broad swords, Sir Jorah Mormount-style. Their act of retribution led to an entire summer of guerrilla warfare within the territory. One of Brown's sons was killed in the seemingly endless fighting that spanned the summer of 1856.



By 1857, Brown returned East with his surviving four sons and began raising money to incite a mass uprising of enslaved people. He managed to secure backing from six prominent abolitionists, known as the Secret Six, to form an invasion force. The group of 22 men included himself, three of his sons, and five black men. Together, they rented out a farm in Maryland near the town of Harpers Ferry and began preparing for their attack. It was Brown's hope that their actions would trigger a revolt of enslaved people across the South.

When Brown and his men marched on the armory, they did so with 1000 steel spikes fashioned by abolitionist sympathizer, Charles Blair, in Connecticut. The spikes never ended up being used as Brown had failed to rally the enslaved into an all-out revolt. The first shot fired in this raid was said to be the first shot of the Civil War. That shot mortally wounded a black baggage porter for the B&O Railroad named Heyward Shepard.

The sound of the first gunshot alerted Dr. John Starry to the scene. Upon investigating the blast, he was confronted by Brown's men. He stated that he was a doctor, but that there was nothing he could do for poor Heyward. He was fatally shot. He was released and immediately ran to the livery before riding to the neighboring villages to raise the alarm bells. As Dr. Starry spread the word, local citizens and militia gathered and rode as hard as they could to reach the armory and stop the raid.



Brown and his men were quickly driven into a corner, retreating to the arsenal's fire engine house. This building still stands today as a well-kept monument to all John Brown stood for, fought for, and died for. Though it has changed locations many times over the years, it still stands proudly today. It is the only surviving building of the old armory and arsenal after the Civil War. During the raid, Brown and his raiders took a handful of hostages, including George Washington's great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington.

The Secretary of War requested that the Navy Department send in a unit of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard as these were the closest troops at the time. Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take 86 Marines to end the raid in Harpers Ferry. Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was on leave at his nearby home in Arlington, Virginia. He was called on and assigned to lead the troop of 86 with Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart as his aide-de-camp. This is a personal assistant or secretary to a high-ranking person, usually a senior military officer or member of the royal family or head of state.

Due to the unavailability of uniforms, Lee's troop was forced to march in civilian clothing. Just two days after the start of the raid, on October 18, 1859, Lee descended on Harpers Ferry with his contingent. Once negotiations failed miserably, they stormed the fire house. Many of the raiders were captured and ten were killed. Two of those that lost their lives were Brown's own sons. During the course of the battle, Lee's contingent only suffered one casualty.

John Brown was captured and taken to Charles Town, Jefferson County's seat, to be tried. His trial was held on November 2, and he was found guilty of treason and murder. The most damning testimony in his hearing was that of Dr. John Starry. Just a month after his guilty verdict was read, on December 2, Brown was hanged as a martyr for the enslaved peoples' cause. Before he met the hangman's noose, Brown handed the guard a slip of paper. It read, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

Though the raid was unsuccessful, it did stoke social tensions and it also raised the stakes for the presidential election of 1860. The raid also made it next to impossible to make any more accommodations between the North and the South. The words that John Brown spoke in his interview with Virginia Governor, Henry A. Wise, as well as his famous, inspiring final speech were said to have "captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since." The fire engine house that he made his last stand in became known as John Brown's Fort. It has served as a symbol for freedom and civil rights since his death in 1859.

The B&O Railroad decided that they wanted the land that John Brown's Fort originally stood on to make their line less vulnerable to flooding. The white townspeople of the area didn't object as they didn't want a monument to John Brown in their town. His final refuge before being taken hostage was dismantled and taken to Chicago to be displayed at the 1893 Colombian Exposition. The building was abandoned there until the B&O Railroad returned it in the hopes that it would become a tourist attraction that they could build ridership off of. Most of the town's white citizens weren't happy about the fort's return. They just didn't care to memorialize such a great man because of their own racist views. Due to their saddening lack of care and decency, John Brown's Fort was placed on a nearby farm.



It wouldn't stay hidden away on a farm forever, though. The fort was bought by Storer College in 1909, on the 50th anniversary of the raid. The building was then placed on Storer's campus as a monument to the great man, himself. In 1960, it was acquired by the National Park Service and was moved back to its original location in the lower part of town in 1968. This is where it still stands today, open to tourists.

While the Civil War devastated much of the South, Harpers Ferry was hit by the brutality particularly hard. The town was described as being "easy to seize and hard to hold." From 1861-1865, the once beautiful and industrious town changed hands between the Union and the Confederacy eight times. Philadelphia lawyer, historian, and Civil War veteran, John G. Rosengarten described Harpers Ferry and Boliver Heights in 1859 as "a blooming garden-spot, full of thrift, and industry, and comfort." In 1862, he said that the previously thriving and stunning town had been reduced to "waste and desolation."



Thanks to the town's strategic position on the B&O Railroad and the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate and Union troops regularly moved through Harpers Ferry. By the summer of 1862, the town's garrison of 14,000 troops would attract 1500 who were fortunate enough to escape the clutches of slavery. During this time, escaped slaves were known as contraband by the sadistic, cruel men looking to recapture them. Unfortunately, those that had escaped to Harpers Ferry while it was under Union control would be recaptured when the Confederacy took back control that same year.

What had once been the pearl of the Appalachian Mountains was completely shelled out by this point. In March 1862, it was described as thus: "Harpers Ferry presents quite the gloomy picture. The best buildings have been shelled to the ground, and nothing now remains but their foundations to mark the spot where they once stood. The old Arsenal has been burnt to the ground; that part of the building where old John Brown made such a fatal stand, still stands as a monument to his memory. Before the destruction of the town, it contained near 3000 inhabitants, but at the present time there are not more than 300 or 400 families there."

It was also in 1862 that the town served as a key part of the Confederate invasion of Maryland. In September of that year, Robert E. Lee decided that before invading, he would take the town of Harpers Ferry first. It sat right on his supply line and it could also control one of his possible routes of retreat if things didn't go his way in Maryland. By this point in the war, Lee had been made a general. He divided his army into four sections and used the cover of the mountains to send in three sections under Stonewall Jackson's command. They successfully surrounded and captured the town, but not before the Battle of Harpers Ferry ensued on September 13.



Meanwhile, Confederate troops were attacking Maryland Heights, to the northeast as John Walker was moving back over the Potomac to take Loundoun Heights. Through September 14 and 15, the town was completely overwhelmed by artillery bombardment, forcing Harpers Ferry into the largest surrender until the Battle of Bataan in WWII. That day, 12,419 Federal troops were captured. After the delay in taking the town, General Lee had to regroup in the town of Sharpsburg. Just two days later, he was commanding his troops in the Battle of Antietam, which had the highest death toll of any single day in US Military history.

The paymaster's quarters, now known as Lockwood House, and the superintendent clerk's quarters, now known as Brackett House, were used as hospitals in 1862. Lockwood House wouldn't gain its name until Henry Hayes Lockwood briefly made it his home in 1863. St. Peter's Catholic Church, built in 1830, served as another hospital during the Civil War.

During and after the war, freed enslaved people would make their way to the town where John Brown made his last stand against injustice. As families found each other again, mostly after having to buy the freedom of loved ones, they moved to Harpers Ferry to make their beginnings. Unfortunately, the white residents living there weren't welcoming to their new neighbors. The influx of Black residents moving into town after the war created tensions between those seeking a better life and those already taking advantage of it. It was felt that they would need services of their own to use so the Black residents wouldn't be using White services.

With the exception of John Brown's Fort and St. Peter's Catholic Church, the entire town was decimated by the war's end. A homesick soldier from Massachusetts wrote to his mother in 1863, "The larger portion of the houses all lie in ruins and the whole place is not actually worth $10." Today, that $10 would be worth $215.63. Conditions didn't improve throughout the decade that followed the war. A visitor to the town in 1878 would call it, "antiquated, dingy, and rather squalid." Another guest in 1879 referred to it as "shabby and ruined." Though conditions were eventually improved upon, the town's population would never recover to the pre-Civil War numbers it had known.

The US Armory and Arsenal of Harpers Ferry had been the largest employer in the area before the war. During the war, it had been destroyed to prevent another raid like the one John Brown had enacted in 1859. At its peak just before the eruption of the war, the armory had employed 400 people. After the war, more than 30,000 newly freed Black citizens moved into the Shenandoah Valley filled with hope and dreams for a better future for their children and grandchildren. With so many now living in such a small town that had been ravaged by the war, work was not easily found for anyone, particularly the new Black community of the area.

Though most of the White citizens were not welcoming to the newly freed men, women, and children moving into town, that cannot be said for all of the White citizens. These residents not only welcomed their new neighbors with open arms, they did everything they could to help. In 1867, The Freewill Baptists of New England, the Freedman's Bureau, and John Storer all came together to establish the very first school in West Virginia to offer education to Black students above the primary level. For the next 25 years, it would be the only school in the state to educate Black students beyond the primary level.

History.com states that the Freewill Baptists had already been running a little mission school in one building when a wealthy businessman living in Maine caught wind of it. John Storer loved the idea and wanted to help. He made a very generous offer of $10,000 to the Freewill Baptists, worth $191,335.21 today. It was to be a matching grant. The group would need to raise the other $10,000 in order to receive it. An intense fundraising effort went underway as donations were taken, mortgage assets were collected, and government funds were requested. They managed to collect the money the day before the offer expired. The entire $20,000 would today be worth $384,511.27.

The college's bureau was given four structurally sound buildings that had previously been residences of the armory's managers. They were in desperate need of repair after the war, but they could still be utilized with a little care given to them. The school was named for John Storer, and Storer College would open its doors officially in 1868. It would operate for 88 years before its closing in 1955. During its years as a functioning institution, thousands passed through its hallowed halls. They learned the skills necessary to teach each other as well as picking up many marketable skills. The basics, like reading and writing, were also taught to those that needed to learn them. Storer College became known as a safe place for Black students to learn in a world where Black education had previously been unheard of.



The driving force behind the little mission school, among others, that started it all was a man named Nathan Brackett. Education was everything to the Brackett family. He, along with his wife and four other teachers, used the Lockwood House as their base of operations to set up primary schools throughout the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. By 1867, Brackett was supervising 16 teachers and schools for 2500 students in the Shenandoah Valley. Despite heavy resistance from the White residents of the area, the mission grew exponentially, educating more and more students that were eager to learn.

Unfortunately, racism reared its ugly head in Harpers Ferry as White residents began employing any immoral, underhanded trick they could think of to shut Storer College down. Mob violence, vandalism, and slanderous newspaper articles were among the tactics tried. An attempt at pulling strings to have the doors closed had even failed. The brave and dedicated teachers of Storer College faced abuse in public for simply educating Black students. The students also faced public abuse for nothing more than their race and their zeal to learn. One of these courageous teachers wrote, "It is unusual for me to go to the post office without being hooted at and twice I have been stoned on the streets at noonday." The students and teachers alike refused to be intimidated by their hateful, ignorant neighbors. The mission of education continued in the Shenandoah Valley.

After growing up in the center of academia, Nathan Brackett's daughter, Mary Brackett Robinson, would become a teacher at Storer College in her adulthood. She would comment about the school her father had helped build and she had come to love, "Though storms of misunderstanding might rage outside the gate, within the campus all was calm and quiet. It was a little heaven."



As their mission to educate grew larger, so did Storer's campus. It expanded across Camp Hill with the addition of three more government buildings in 1869. Slowly but surely, fundraising efforts were able to pay for the addition of more buildings as enrollment continued to grow. Black students that had graduated from the college joined its faculty, along with more ministers.

Aside from education, the most valuable asset found on Storer's campus was the deep and overwhelming sense of community. Faculty and classmates were all there for one another, unquestionably. No one that needed it ever went without help at the school. Someone was always standing nearby with a helping hand outstretched. The atmosphere at the college couldn't be beat anywhere else in the world. One student would say of the school, "Here, you will gain new understanding of community living and of friendships."

Storer College would come to own land around Harpers Ferry as part of its property, including a summer boarding house. The school also made it possible for 75% the town's Black residents to own their own real estate. They accomplished this by leveraging funds and selling surplus property to graduates and their families.

Storer College would go on to become a monument for progress and freedom in Harpers Ferry, alongside John Brown's Fort. It would also be the school that West Virginia's first Black business owner would graduate from before opening the nicest hotel in the tri-state area. The Hill Top House Hotel would become known for luxury and grandeur in its time. It even became a hot spot for congressmen and other Washington dignitaries as it was located just 70 miles outside of D.C.

During the school's operation, the NAACP's predecessor, the Niagara Movement, held their first meeting on US soil in Harper Ferry on Storer College's campus in 1906. The group was led by W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was a Harvard educated man and an author. He issued a call in 1905 to select a few good men to join his fight for civil rights. His call had two purposes, "organized determination and aggressive action." In all, Du Bois called 29 people to action before their first meeting on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, hence the name the Niagara Movement. They had originally hoped to hold their first meeting in Buffalo, New York, but had been refused accommodation. They met at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario and spent three days adopting a constitution and by-laws, establishing committees, and writing the Declaration of Principles.

Just thirteen months after their first meeting, they gathered again at Storer College. From August 15-19 in 1906, the group lodged at the Hill Top House Hotel, owned by West Virginia's first Black business owner. With Storer College educating students of all races and genders, John Brown's Fort, and the illustrious hotel, Harpers Ferry was a natural choice to hold their first American meeting. By the time the group arrived in West Virginia, they were 50 members strong. Women were also granted equal membership in the group and took equal part in the conference at Harpers Ferry. Their four-day conference was filled with inspiring speeches, meetings, special addresses, and commemorative ceremonies.

The Niagara Movement was the foundation laid for the civil rights movement. It carried on until 1911, at which point its members became the backbone for the NAACP. The four-day conference at Storer College helped tremendously towards building the organization we know today.

The appalling practice of segregation in schools ended with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision in 1954. The following year, West Virginia's Board of Education decided to stop the annual $20,000 stipend that went to funding Storer. Today, that would be equivalent to $202,758.21. The board preferred to support state sponsored schools that were located in more modern buildings with larger student populations. By the time the school closed in 1955, it had educated more than 7000 students. It accepted applicants of all races and either gender, making it more progressive than most schools at the time. It took an immense amount of courage and dedication to grow and sustain the college over the course of 88 years, but the faculty and students all worked hard to live up to John Storer's motto. Labor Omnia Vincet, or Work Conquers All.



Thomas Lovett was West Virginia's first Black business owner, opening the Hill Top House Hotel to much acclaim in 1890. His grandmother, Marcia Blue, also identified in records as Martha Blue, was born into slavery in 1805. She was emancipated by Sarah Opie Parker on February 2, 1821, as instructed in her last will and testament. Another will initialed by the man purported to be her father, Hiram Lindsay Parker, granted her property as well as income.

Marcia got married to a man named Fairfax Weaver, and together the pair had two children. Thomas' mother, Sarah Elizabeth Weaver, and his uncle, James Weaver. In 1848, Sarah married a fireman on the Valley Branch of the B&O Railroad, also known as the Winchester Branch. His name was William C. Lovett and he would go on to father eleven children with Sarah, including three sets of twins. One twin, born during the Civil War, unfortunately wouldn't survive.

By the start of the Civil War, Marcia's husband had passed away. She left home with her daughter, son-in-law, and at that time, eight grandchildren, following General Banks' retreat of the Union army to Pennsylvania. As they followed the retreat, the Union army took possession of their wagon, leaving them stranded on the trail. Though the remaining miles were difficult to travel, they made it to Chambersburg. They remained there for four years after arriving while the Union army used their Winchester home as a hospital for wounded soldiers.

After the war's end, the family returned South and spent the decade between 1870 and 1880 in Harpers Ferry. It was during that decade that the Lovett family formed a close relationship with Storer College and Nathan Brackett. Marcia, already an experienced landowner, bought property on Filmore Street with Brackett's help. Several of Sarah and William's children went on to attend Storer College, including Thomas. Brackett also employed Sarah and William to run the boarding house operation at Lockwood House. The family was able to set down roots and make a good life for themselves in the beautiful little jewel of the Shenandoah Valley.

Lockwood House started being used as a summer boarding house in the mid-1870s. With the addition of a third floor and a Mansard in 1883, the humble house transformed into a respectable hotel. William and Sarah Lovett oversaw operations at the hotel while their children and grandchildren were either attending or working at Storer College. They were very capable and skilled hotel managers, keeping a fully booked guest registry at all times. As one guest checked out, another was always waiting to be checked in. Brackett's daughter would recall the atmosphere at the Lockwood Hotel on summer evenings, "Every evening throughout the season the family used to gather around the piano and entertain their guests and themselves with singing. The piano stood in the big hall and the porches were filled with appreciative listeners."



In 1888, William Lovett passed away, leaving Sarah to manage the hotel with the help of Thomas and another of her sons, James. As Thomas oversaw guests checking in and out as the hotel clerk, James ran the kitchen as the chef. It was during this era that Harpers Ferry became popular with Black tourists that were looking to escape from the hot, overcrowded cities. They would choose to come to an oasis of mountainous terrain housing important landmarks symbolizing their fight for civil rights. Every summer, Lockwood Hotel saw several hundred guests pour through its doors and into the lobby. The number of guests that visited steadily rose every year. The new booming tourist industry employed many locals and students of Storer College.

Thomas Lovett could clearly see the potential in the small gem hidden in Appalachia. As he watched the hotel book to capacity every single night, he began to envision Harpers Ferry as a destination for Black and White tourists alike. Since the Lockwood Hotel was constantly running out of rooms to accommodate the ever-growing demand, Thomas opened up the Brackett House with his wife, Lavinia. Once the Brackett House opened for business, Thomas' sister, Maggie, began helping their mother along with her husband, Allen P. Daniel. It was around this time that Thomas' idea for a grand hotel atop Magazine Hill first formed.



The location where the old armory had stored its gunpowder for the arms-making factory had a breath-taking view. The position offered a birds-eye view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. One could watch the sun rise and set right on the rivers' confluence. Storer College offered tours of their campus and John Brown's Fort was available to visit as well. There was also great hiking and fishing in the area. The opening of Island Park Resort and Amusement Park on Byrne Island in 1879 offered even more for tourists in the way of entertainment. With such a booming new tourist industry, surely a grand luxury hotel would be appreciated. From the hilltop overlooking the rivers, Thomas proclaimed, "Here, where the martyrdom of John Brown took place, is where I will build my hotel."

When Thomas purchased the land, the local papers started closely tracking the progress of construction. From the fencing off of the land to the completion of the hotel, they didn't miss a beat in their coverage. Once the hotel was finally finished in 1890, Thomas continued to make additions and improvements. For its time, the Hill Top House Hotel was very modern and luxurious. Amenities included electricity, bath tubs with hot and cold running water, a dance pavilion, and a 4000 square foot dining room. As well as housing many congressmen and dignitaries, the hotel also saw a few presidents in its day.

By 1904, the hotel was operational year-round. A steam-heating plant had been installed to accommodate guests in the winter months as well as the summer. With Harpers Ferry being such a gorgeous destination, I don't imagine it took long to start booking the hotel to capacity with guests eager to see the snow-capped mountains.

A fire destroyed the western part of the hotel in December 1912. Thomas was able to rebuild before his summer guests started filing in and didn't lose any of his revenue for the season. It was after his rebuild that Washington dignitaries began visiting the humble little town. The hotel saw its first presidential visit in 1915, when Woodrow Wilson made a trip there in October of that year.

In June 1919, another fire devastated the hotel, reducing it to its foundation. Thomas wasted no time rebuilding, immediately drawing up his plans. He rebuilt his famous hotel from stone this time and furnished it with every modern convenience, including long distance phones. Thomas ran the hotel with his wife until 1926, when they sold the property to Fred McGee. It operated until 2008 and saw many famous faces pass through its doors. Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and Bill Clinton were just a few.



Though the old building has fallen into disrepair over time, there are plans to rebuild it all new according to Thomas Lovett's original plans from 1919. Construction had been planned to start in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted the project. The new Hill Top House Hotel is slated to open in 2024 with a spa, infinity pool, chef's garden, bowling lanes, and conference rooms as well as 120 rooms to house guests. The historic buildings on the property will serve as living-history suites as well as cooking and photography schools. All in all, the new hotel is estimated to cost $139 million. Progress on the hotel's production as well as its history can be found at hilltophousehotel.com.



Located in the Potomac, just 3100 feet north of Virginius Island is Byrne Island. It was bought by the B&O Railroad in the hopes that they could increase ridership by opening an amusement park. In 1879, the Island Park Resort and Amusement Park was erected. The park was quite successful, even hosting church picnics and political rallies. Needless to say, the B&O Railroad had accomplished their goal. The park also served as a perk to the railroad's employees. There was always a long list of activities to be enjoyed every single day, including parades and concerts at the big bandstand.

A footbridge was built to access the park and the toll to cross was five cents. Everything inside the park was free, though. Attractions included a steam-powered Ferris wheel, a carousel, a pavilion for dancing or roller skating, swings, and a merry-go-round. The only surviving piece of the amusement park today is the old bandstand, now located at Washington and Gilmore Streets. There was always plenty to do at the Island Park Resort. Great fishing, croquet, tennis, or you could rent boats or wade in the river. Later on, baseball games would be held there as well.

During the dark ages of racism and inequality, Black visitors were made to attend on separate days from White visitors. Just in 1883 alone, an estimated 100,000 guests visited the park. The B&O Railroad company had more than made their money back on the land.

The footbridge was destroyed twice, the first time being while the park was still in operation in 1896. The next time was 28 years later, in 1924. This would seem to be the only bit of bad luck the park ever ran into.

In 1890, it was expanded and renamed Island Park. For thirty years before its closing in 1909, it entertained countless visitors. All of the structures that remained on the island were destroyed in a flood in 1942. Today, the only surviving piece of the Island Park is the old bandstand. Not many images can be found of the park today. Three postcards picturing the old footbridge are featured at the Jefferson County Museum, but these seem to be the only existing pictures.



The flood of 1936 left the lower part of town in destruction. The bridge crossing the Shenandoah to Virginia had been taken out as well as the bridge to Maryland. All of the remaining structures from Virginius Island's days as a water-powered industrial center were left entirely in ruins.

President of Storer College and amateur historian, Henry T. MacDonald, was appointed the head of Harpers Ferry National Monument Commission by the West Virginia governor, Okey Patteson. Jennings Randolph, a representative from West Virginia's Second District, assisted in the efforts to preserve and commemorate the little town on the water. Randolph introduced a bill in 1935 to establish Harpers Ferry National Military Park. Though the bill didn't pass, the flood of 1936 greatly helped in making the project possible. Many buildings were destroyed that didn't hold any historical value, thus freeing up land for the park to be built.

Several more attempts at passing the bill failed until President Roosevelt signed it in 1944 under the condition that construction not begin until after WWII had ended. The town also had a higher priority at the time. A new highway was needed, so construction began on US Route 340. Construction on a new bridge connecting Sandy Hook to Loundoun County, Virginia began in 1941, but it wasn't finally completed until 1947, due to the second World War. Two years later, another bridge connecting Boliver, West Virginia over the Shenandoah River was completed. Federal traffic now bypassed Harpers Ferry entirely.

Soon after the bridge's completion in 1949, land acquisition began in the lower town. Two taverns were closed and 22 eviction notices were served. Many of the town's White residents weren't happy about giving up their homes for a monument to commemorate John Brown and his raid. Despite the issues that arose during the acquisition of land, all acquisitions were completed in 1952 and presented to the US in January 1953.

Turning the town into a national monument was an attempt at preventing it from further deterioration. They hoped to revive their long-dead tourist industry and bring the small gem at the confluence of the rivers back to life. The National Park Service's website stated that a full makeover was needed to breathe life back into the town. Roofs were cleared, missing windows replaced, walls on the verge of collapse were reinforced, and debris was cleared out. Post-1859 buildings were removed instead of restored. The National Park Service built a visitor's center as well as the John Brown Museum. The National Monument's first on-site employee, John T. Willett, started his first day on the job in 1954.

Those still living in the area weren't happy about the National Park Service moving in. Their new rules and restrictions prohibited all of the activities locals once enjoyed, like fishing and swimming at the Shenandoah's shore. Those looking purely for recreation became an issue for the park service. Tensions remained high between the town's residents and the park service for quite some time after they acquired the land. Parking in the lower town was removed and a shuttle bus service started to help keep excursionists out of the rivers and the historic park. Though the population steadily declined into the 20th century, the National Park Service did manage to obtain Main Street Status for Harpers Ferry in 2001 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The archeology of the town has been thoroughly studied and the journal, Historical Archeology, published an entire issue dedicated to Harpers Ferry in 1994.



On July 23, 2015, a fire erupted downtown and destroyed eight or nine businesses and two apartments in historic buildings. These buildings are now being rebuilt just as they were before. Just four years after that tragedy, multiple cars of a CSX train derailed from the bridge crossing the Potomac. The train wrecked in the early morning hours of December 21, 2019. While no one was injured, part of the Goddloe E. Byron Memorial Pedestrian Walkway was damaged, cutting off pedestrian access across the Potomac. The bridge was repaired and reopened in early July 2020.

A town that has seen so much history and devastation obviously has a ghostly reputation. It's said that Harpers Ferry is the most haunted town in all of America. Anyone living or working in the touristy little town has been subject to some kind of paranormal experience. A blog called Teresa's Haunted History of the Tri-State provides an excellent insight into the eerie happenings in Harpers Ferry. From the shops on the streets to the streets themselves, there's no telling what one may encounter.

The John Brown Wax Museum is even creepier than it sounds with its narrow, dimly lit hallways winding up the building's three levels. Every room of the house displays wax figures illustrating moments from John Brown's life. As you navigate the shadowy halls, it's not uncommon to hear the sounds of children playing in the house. A manager of the museum reported hearing footsteps and the voices of children talking. Every morning, when she comes to open up the museum she says good-morning to the children. On one particular morning, she rushed into the museum to open and in her flurry forgot to greet them. All of the sudden, as she was preparing to open for the day all of the audio in the museum came on full blast on its own. The system needed someone to push a button to turn it on, but the manager was the only person present at the time.

VOA News reports that a cute little candy shop nearby the museum has its own activity. True Treats Historic Candy sells delectable treats for every person young and old with a sweet tooth. Tables inside the store display bright, beautiful arrangements of chocolate and other candies in adorable baskets, ready for purchase. Tourists don't only come for the sweet treats, though. The candy shop has become known for its two most regular customers. A man and a woman that seem to delight in screwing with the customers. They throw candy around the shop and slam doors on the customers. Though the woman is unnamed, the man is known as Colby and is also known to be quite mischievous.

The candy shop's manager has gained a reputation as the "ghost lady" as she appears to be very sensitive to the paranormal. She's grown quite familiar with her spectral frequenters over time. She managed to learn Colby's name, though she doesn't usually see much of him. Just a fleeting glimpse of a pants leg or a shoulder can be seen as he walks by. The nameless woman, however, shows herself in full form. Wearing a flowing, beautiful white gown, she usually walks up the stairs and sits on the top level. Though she opts to sit away from the customers, it would appear that she makes sure to sit where she can be seen.

VOA News also talked a bit about the Iron Horse Inn and its owner, Shirley Dougherty, who opened the restaurant in the late 1960s. The restaurant's name comes from its close proximity to the railroad tracks, located right across the street. When Shirley first opened her restaurant she had dreams of running a successful place in a historic park as she and her family served the tourists visiting the area. She had no interest whatsoever in the building's history nor did she believe in ghosts. That quickly changed when a series of ghostly events prompted Shirley and her family to look further into the history of Harpers Ferry, as well as their restaurant.

The Dougherty family began talking to the locals and listened to the stories they had to tell. These stories would become the basis for the town's first ghost tours. These tours are still given today, though they are now run by historian, Rick Garland. He now carries on the legacy that Shirley started more than 50 years ago. The Harpers Ferry Ghost Tours, originally opened in 1970, are the longest-running ghost tours in the country. Before they were ever popular, Shirley Dougherty saw the market for a haunted tourist attraction. Dressed in traditional Victorian garb, Rick guides tour groups through the streets of Harpers Ferry telling the stories of the town's past. Guided through the dimly lit streets by only the light of his lantern, Rick engages his audience with tales of ghostly encounters.



It wasn't long after opening the Iron Horse Inn that Shirley's son and daughter-in-law had the first of what would be many encounters inside their restaurant. While Shirley's son was downstairs cleaning up at the end of the night, his wife was upstairs changing her clothes. As she changed, the door began to shake violently as though someone were trying to get inside. When the shaking stopped, a terribly loud crash could be heard on the stairs as though someone were falling, hitting every step on the way down. The startlingly loud sound could be heard throughout the building. Shirley's son ran into the room as his wife ran down the stairs, both thinking that the other had fallen. They were the only two in the building that night, making this experience all the more rattling.

For more than two months, a kerosene lamp would be thrown across the restaurant by an invisible hand. This would happen at least once a week. The Dougherty family weren't the only ones being haunted by who or whatever was hanging around the building. The customers were also occasionally harassed by someone unseen. One family that visited the restaurant reported having water thrown on them from the staircase. There was no one on or near the staircase nor was there any water anywhere nearby.

After experiences like these, the family set out to find the stories of the town's past to answer the question of what was happening. They didn't just answer their question, they found a wealth of stories from days long-past. They found that all of the locals had a story or two. Amid the many tales they uncovered, a story explaining the loud crash heard at the restaurant was also discovered.

While Harpers Ferry was under Union occupation during the war, the Confederacy sent a spy to infiltrate the area. As the young spy walked down Potomac Street, he noticed some guards up ahead. Thinking on his feet, he quickly turned around and walked in the opposite direction. Unfortunately for him, he didn't change direction nearly quickly enough. The guards caught sight of him and yelled for him to stop, sending him fleeing into the first building he saw. This happened to be the very building that Shirley Dougherty bought nearly 100 years later.

Unbeknownst to the Confederate spy, he was running straight into a room filled with Union soldiers. One of them pulled his revolver and shot him in the chest. The impact of the gunshot sent the young spy flying backwards down the stairs. He hit every single step on his way down. The man was already dead by the time he reached the bottom.

There is one spirit that has been identified as a guardian angel of the confluence. About 50 years ago, several drownings occurred in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Each time, a man in a checkered shirt and baggy trousers would come bounding up the river bank to get help from a passing tourist or park ranger. One day, a park ranger was going through some old photos taken around the park when he ran across a picture that made his heart stop. It was the man that had reported all of the drownings. His name was Mosha Fine and he was a peddler that had drowned in the rivers himself in the 1920s.

St. Peter's Catholic Church is the only church in town that survived the Civil War. It was run by Father Micheal Costello, a British subject. Each morning Father Costello would hoist the Union Jack, or the British flag, up the steeple. Both the Union and the Confederacy feared an international incident if anything were to happen to the church, so it was left almost untouched by the war's brutality. It was, however, turned into a hospital that treated soldiers from both sides during the conflict.

One day, a young Catholic soldier was brought to the church for treatment. As his wounds didn't appear to be very severe and all of the beds were full, he was made to wait outside. The young man didn't mind or argue at all. He was comforted and content just to be on the church's hallowed grounds. It turned out that the poor, young soldier's wounds were worse than anyone thought. As he was being carried across the threshold for care, he uttered his last words before passing away. He said, "Thank God, I'm saved."



Those that visit the old church today say that they see a glowing aura standing in the entrance. Some have even claimed to hear the young Catholic soldier repeating his final words. Father Costello has also been seen wandering the church grounds. He's most often seen walking down a path before turning and disappearing through a wall, presumably where a door once stood. As he's only ever seen walking the path in the evenings, he's likely still sticking to his regimented daily routine.

Harpers Ferry is also known for an entire troop of ghosts that haunt the streets as they continue to prepare for a war that never came to pass. In 1798, it looked as though the US was nearing a war with France. Troops were sent to the small town to prepare for a war that never started. Before they could leave, many of the soldiers got sick amid a cholera outbreak and died. The Phantom Army, as they've come to be known, can still be heard marching the streets of Harpers Ferry.

The saddest story of all to come out of the tiny town on the confluence involves a drummer boy in the Civil War. The young boy was killed when a Union soldier threw him from a window. It's been said that the little drummer boy can be heard crying for his mother in the part of town that he died in.

Another heartbreaking tale of senseless violence involves a man named Dangerfield Newby, who took part in John Brown's raid. During the raid, those tasked with defending the town began to run low on ammunition. One resident resolved this issue by firing six-inch spikes from his rifle onto the raiders. Dangerfield was struck in the throat by one of these spikes and died. The vengeful, hateful residents didn't stop there, though. They repeatedly stabbed his corpse before cutting off his head and his limbs. His body was left in Hog Alley to be consumed by hogs. Dangerfield can still be seen wandering the streets, identifiable by his baggy trousers, slouched hat, and the scar across his throat.

Screaming Jenny is a particularly jolting figure to run across on a dark night by the train tracks. Known only as Jenny, she was living alone in a little shack near the tracks. During the era of the Great Depression, she was far from the only person setting up camp near those tracks. One night as Jenny sat by the fire, warming herself and eating her dinner, her clothes caught fire. In a panic, she took off running. With the flames obscuring her vision and hysteria clouding her judgement, rather than running towards people that could help, she ran straight into an oncoming train. Jenny died on impact and her spirit can still be seen on the train tracks as a ball of fire screaming down the tracks until the point of her impact. She's only seen once a year, on the anniversary of her death.

During the summer of 1974, a man bearing a striking resemblance to John Brown was seen all over the historic park by tourists. This dead-ringer even gained the name Johnny B. Good, or just Johnny B. He was a friendly man, taking pictures with all of the tourists that asked to pose with him. All that summer, visitors to the park posed for their pictures with what they assumed to be an impersonator of the man, himself. When their pictures were developed many appeared to be posing all alone, when they knew that Johnny B. Good had been there. Some pictures contained blank, whited out spaces where he had stood.

Positioned near St. Peter's Catholic Church is the Harper House, built by the town's founder, Robert Harper. While building this house, Harper was very paranoid about the British. As a result of his paranoia, he asked his wife, Rachel, to bury the family's gold and tell no one where she had hidden it. Rachel did as she was asked and just a couple of weeks before the couple was set to move into their new home, she fell from a ladder and died. Taking her secret with her to the grave, Rachel is still seen today guarding the family's gold, which is still hidden somewhere on the property. She can be seen standing in a window overlooking the garden, watching.



Harpers Ferry is rich in beauty, history, and soon luxury with the upcoming opening of the new Hill Top House Hotel in 2024. You can tour the John Brown Wax Museum, check out John Brown's Fort, and take home a variety of different candies from True Treats Historic Candy after joining Rick Garland for a ghost tour of the town. The Iron Horse Inn is also still open, serving hungry customers. That is, if you like ghostly hands throwing water on you during your meal. Information on ghost tours can be found on harpersferryghost.20m.com. Come witness the haunted beauty that is Harpers Ferry. Chilling, otherworldly, enchanting.


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