(The family and I seem to have stayed for the last five days in the only hotel in America without free wireless internet. So this post is later than I would have liked.)
We've been visiting family near Washington, DC, for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we needed something to fill some time while waiting to go to my brother-in-law's house for an evening get-together. We didn't have enough time, really, to go into the city, so we scanned the map for something closer to our evening's destination, something that would take only a couple of hours or so. We found Harper's Ferry, which we thought would meet all our criteria for a day's outing. So that's what we did on Christmas Eve afternoon, and it turned out to be my favorite place on our trip so far.
All I knew about Harper's Ferry was that John Brown had led some kind of rebellion there just before the Civil War (and as it turned out, what I thought I knew wasn't entirely accurate!). I'm not ashamed to admit that I was completely amazed to find the town has a fascinating history that goes back to before the Revolutionary War, when Robert Harper chose this place where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac to locate a ferry. A couple of decades later, George Washington urged the Congress of the new United States to make an armory at the strategic location. Merriwether Lewis used the town as a base while he got together the supplies (mainly weaponry) he would need for his exploration of the new Louisiana Purchase. A school to educate former slaves was started at Harper's Ferry not long after the Civil War, and W.E.B. Du Bois met with a group of African Americans on the college campus early in the 20th century to plan the first stages of the civil rights movement. All this, and John Brown, too! There was a museum that did a very thorough job of explaining the whole set of circumstances that led to John Brown's death.
As if all the history that happened in the town was not enough, there were also a plethora of other museums that gave me a chance to see what life was like in days past. My favorite was a dry goods store, which I told my kids was the 19th-century equivalent of Wal-Mart. This store was stocked with everything from (wax) hams and fruit to bolts of fabric to dishes to pieces of leather to medical remedies to a small collection of toys. Unfortunately, we could only step about three feet into the store because it was roped off; I would have loved to have been able to go from shelf to shelf, looking at all the wonderful things. Of course, it's probably a good thing I couldn't - I don't think my family would have appreciated having to wait for me!
I have to also say the physical location of the town was fascinating to me, as well. I didn't realize the Potomac was so rough and rocky, or that it lies between such imposing bluffs. The town itself is literally built on the side of a steep hill. We climbed a set of winding steps that were carved into the rock to get to the old Catholic Church at the top of the hill (which tolled a solemn, resounding tone throughout the valley on the hour).
My daughter (age 10) kept saying she was afraid of the ghosts in the town. Of course, we told her there were no ghosts, but I can understand why she was saying that. It was a cloudy, cool day with some blustery wind, and there were only a few other people wandering through the deserted streets between the old buildings. But while she saw the "ghosts" as something to be afraid of, I think of them as possible friends, waiting to tell me their stories.