Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is known today for John Brown’s Raid in 1859 and for the beautiful hike up Maryland Heights that overlooks the town. But while Harpers Ferry has an abundance of history and scenic views, it also has a long history that is closely tied to climate change.


Photo: Hilary Grabowska

In 1794, Congress approved a bill that lead to the establishment of a federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The location was chosen by George Washington and he had a number of reasons for this spot: Harpers Ferry is upstream from Washington, DC and no seafaring ship would be able to make it that far upriver to attack the armory and arsenal; the mountains surrounding the location contained iron ore for the guns; and the mountains were covered in forests of black walnut trees, excellent for making gun stocks. In addition to all of these advantages, the location at the confluence of two rivers meant that the factories could be powered by water.


Photo: NPS Art

As the armory began producing weapons, the landscape changed. Water had to be re-routed from the river into canals to power machinery. The mountains were denuded of trees because they were either cut to be used as charcoal or as raw materials for the guns. And tall smokestacks were erected, covering the town in smoke, so much so that the Quartermaster refused to live in the house built for him and instead lived high on a hill above the town. During the Civl War, the armory and arsenal were destroyed and production was halted. Forever.


Photo: civilwar.org

Despite the fact that Harpers Ferry was no longer an industrial town, it still felt the affects of the Industrial Revolution. Without trees, water ran straight off the mountains and into the rivers which frequently flooded the town. The worst flood occurred in 1936 when the town was inundated with 36.5 feet of water.

Today, there are no smokestacks and the trees have returned to the mountains but the lowest point in West Virginia is still suffering the effects of climate change. The summers are hotter and drier and the flood risk remains. With heightened awareness of climate change impacts, volunteers from George Mason University are researching and writing a plan to educate the public on the effects of climate change on Harpers Ferry, and to remind everyone that there is still hope to mitigate the affects of climate change on our National Parks.


Photo: Hilary Grabowska