Harpers Ferry needs more trains to handle more tourists

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, April 05, 2018

Harpers Ferry, W.Va. is an ideal getaway destination. The small town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers is steeped in American history. Its 19th-century layout and architecture, circumscribed by its setting, lend it an almost Old World ambience. Free museums (operated daily by the National Park Service), shopping and dining are enough to fill a day’s worth of activity, and the settings for hiking and bicycling within striking distance of the town are sublime.

Amtrak's eastbound Capitol Limited leaving Harpers Ferry on April 1 with the dilapidated Hilltop House perched above. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
All of this is just over an hour by train from the nation’s sixth most populous metro area at 6.1 million. The number of visitors coming by car in the spring, summer and fall easily fill up available parking lots. The town, whose visitor-catering establishments spill into neighboring Bolivar (pronounced like “Oliver”), lacks direct air service (Washington Dulles being the closest commercial airport) and intercity bus service. The train, as I discovered this weekend, is the ideal way for DC-area residents (especially the growing number who don't own cars) to get there. But train schedules are limited to four round-trips on weekdays and one on weekends, with none timed to allow a single-day round-trip with a full day in Harpers Ferry.

My experience arriving there for the first time by train was most enjoyable. I departed Washington Union Station on a crystal clear and balmy (low 60s) Saturday afternoon on the Capitol Limited. After a swift 1 hour & 10 minute ride through Maryland’s suburbia and then countryside, which I enjoyed from the Sightseer Lounge, I stepped off at Harpers Ferry’s historic wooden depot. After a short walk to the confluence to take in the view in the afternoon light, I walked to a Lower Town restaurant, where I dined with a pint of local beer and an expansive view of three states. After that, my path from Lower Town to my hotel in Bolivar was a sunset stroll along a 1.5-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail (seen in the photo), on which I paused at Jefferson’s Rock and encountered a herd of white-tailed deer. (Harpers Ferry is a roughly halfway point on the Maine to Georgia footpath and is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.)

Section of the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry near sunset on March 31.
The town’s location has given it a key role in east-west transportation since before European arrival in North America. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was one of the first to promote visitation to the town — made famous by abolitionist leader John Brown’s 1859 raid on its federal arsenal and munitions factory, a key precursor to the Civil War — after the war. The railroad even built and operated an amusement park on an island in the Potomac adjacent to the Harpers Ferry station, of which hardly any evidence remains at the site, and ran multiple day trains there from DC and Baltimore on weekends. 

Amtrak continued to do well with weekend trains between DC and Cumberland (later Martinsburg), leaving the capital in the morning and returning in the evening, but these were undermined by hefty deadhead costs to move the equipment to DC Friday evening and back to Cumberland or Martinsburg Monday morning in order to serve commuters with a reverse schedule on weekdays. But since 1981, a trip from DC to Harpers Ferry by train has required staying there at least one night. MARC offers three morning trains into DC and three afternoon outbound trains on weekdays, in addition to Amtrak’s daily Capitol Limited making a mid-day eastbound and late afternoon westbound stop at the town.

Visitors on the footbridge over the Potomac hugging the CSX ex-B&O Charles Town spur, with Lower Town Harpers Ferry in the background, on April 1.
Tourism is one industry West Virginia is seeking to grow in order to ease the economic pain from the decline of coal and other traditional industries. While the town may just be able to accommodate its current level of visitation with its existing infrastructure geared towards those arriving by automobile, its plans for the future call for attracting even more visitors. A potential centerpiece of this is the reconstruction of the Hilltop House, a hotel built inn 1888 on a perch with a grand view of the town and the confluence (as well as the CSX ex-B&O railroad bridge over the Potomac), by a Leesburg, Va.-based venture capital firm known for backing startups aiming to disrupt their industries. The firm, SWaN Investors, wants to turn the crumbling building first built by an African-American developer into a $75 million, 179-room luxury resort.

Before Harpers Ferry finds itself with more traffic than it can handle on summer and fall weekends, it would be wise for its business and tourism community to come together with developers and promoters of the revamped Hilltop House to work with the Maryland Transit Administration (owner of the MARC service), CSX and West Virginia state rail officials to run, at least on a trial basis, at least one weekend train leaving DC in the morning and returning in the evening using otherwise idle MARC equipment. Thankfully, West Virginia resolved its impasse with Maryland over paying for the MARC service into the eastern panhandle.

As with any effort to develop passenger rail as a solution to transportation challenges, this one will take sustained and determined effort by many stakeholders. But the results could be a service that allows even more people to experience Harpers Ferry’s beauty and learn the lessons of its past without befouling its charming atmosphere with more traffic and bigger parking lots.

Lower Town Harpers Ferry on the evening of March 31.

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