Darkness descended on Halloween as the train rolled into the Appalachian Mountains. “Next Stop: Harper's Ferry,” the conductor announced to the few remaining passengers.
The historic West Virginia town that borders Maryland and Virginia at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers is history filled hiker's paradise. For a college student in Washington who checks off his annual earnings as “far less than $25,000,” it was an affordable weekend getaway.
The commuter train took me 70 miles from D.C.'s Union Station for $12 ($9 in advance) in roughly 80 minutes. I had planned to walk 2 miles on a trail in the dark to a $20 Maryland youth hostel. I envisioned the headline “Young journalist disappears …”
8 p.m.: Most of the town's 312 residents were apparently trick-or-treating somewhere else. Stone and brick buildings from the 19th century cast eerie shadows over the quiet streets. I finally found a restaurant: the Secret Six Tavern. As I ate,a man dressed in Civil War garb lumbered into the tavern and passed out song booklets to the 15 to 20 patrons.
Rick Garland lives across the street and performs Civil War battle cries and Irish songs on Friday and Saturday evenings. Garland's song list included “Whiskey in a Jar” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The John Denver hit “Take Me Home,Country Roads,” with its frequent references to West Virginia,prompted many at the bar to cheer and clank their mugs together.
I asked the bartender for directions to the hostel,but he pointed to Karan Townsend and the Town's Inn across the street. Townsend gave me the “River View East” room,usually $70,for $30 because it was vacant. The room included a bunk bed,wash basin,refrigerator and nightstand but no private bath. The next night,the inn was fully booked,so I shared the “Friendship Room,” with six bunks,a couch,DVD player and a kitchenette for $30.
Nov. 1,7 a.m.:
The sun rose over the Potomac River and Appalachian Mountains and smoke rose from chimneys across town. After eating $1 waffles prepared by one of the inn's two caretakers,I set out to find Garland.
10 a.m.: For $10,Garland leads customized walking tours. Garland offered me some “true Southern coffee” with chicory,grabbed his canteen and hung a “CURRENTLY ON TOUR” sign on his front door,and we set off.
I took the 2 ½ hour “deluxe” tour. We visited the spot where George Washington commanded his generals to build an armory,even though his underlings told him the spot would flood,as it has about every 10 years since.
We climbed a series of stone steps to reach Jefferson Rock,which overlooks both rivers and the area's fiery fall foliage. “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature,” Thomas Jefferson wrote from the rock Oct. 25,1783.
President John F. Kennedy designated much of lower town a National Historical Park in 1963,saving Harper's Ferry from disrepair and destruction. Everything from the clothier to the confectionery to the tavern (which Garland bemoaned no longer serves drinks) is restored to the town's 19th century heyday.
We finally reached the town's best-known site – the arsenal John Brown and his fellow abolitionists raided in 1859 – which many argue was the tipping point toward the Civil War. Garland said Harper's Ferry changed hands between the Union and Confederate armies nine or 12 times during the Civil War,depending on how you count. Next year marks the sesquicentennial of the raid,with many events planned.
After grabbing a bowl of cream of potato soup from the Quartermaster tavern,I hiked the 4.2 mile Maryland Heights Trail. Both the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail and the 184.5 mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal path pass through town. The trail was a challenging climb,saddled with rocks and tree roots. But the overlook,where about dozen other hikers rested,offers a hazy,stunning view of the town and points beyond.
Hungry and thirsty,I rewarded myself with a hamburger and fries from the Armory Pub,then looked for ghosts.
Ann Kelican,whose family has been giving ghost tours for more than 30 years,said the town is frequented by spirits and ghouls. One of Kelican's tales involves a little girl named Jenny,who lived in a shack by the railroad track in the 19th century. One night,she sat too close to the fireplace and caught fire. She ran screaming down the train tracks,only to be hit by a train. Kelican said trains still sound their whistles to ward off Jenny's spirit.
I spent the last few hours wandering the town's streets and bike paths before tourists arrived for the day. Fog seeped into the valley from the hills,and a horse-drawn buggy seemed just as likely to appear as a car.
The Amtrak arrived at noon,with no sign of Screaming Jenny,and took me back to the 21st century.