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Potomac History

Historic sites along the Potomac River (scroll to the bottom to see new images).  All photos copyright by Patricia or Michael Lowhorn, as indicated on individual pages.  For technical information, or for permission to utilize images for other than personal use, contact us at

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The town of Harpers Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, along the borders of Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.  George Washington authorized the establishment of the first U.S. Armory & Arsenal here in the 1790s.  John Brown attempted (and failed) to take over the armory and start a slave insurrection in 1859; his attempt fueled further divisions that led to the Civil War.  During the war, the town changed hands eight times.  Afterwards, a school and subsequent college for African American students was established here, which was closed after desegregation in the 1950s.  In 1906, the second conference of the Niagara Movement (a civil rights movement spearheaded by W.E.B. DuBois) took place in the town.  A portion of the town and the surrounding area are included in a National Historical Park.  This photo shows Shenandoah Street, with the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in the upper left-hand corner.

The Shenandoah River (lower right-hand side and center) meets the Potomac River (left-hand side and moving up into the distance).

A bridge takes hikers to Maryland Heights, where there are ruins of Civil War military sites.  In September, 1862, Federal troops were forced to abandon these fortifications and move into the town, where  Confederates under Stonewall Jackson captured 12,500 men in the largest mass surrender of U.S. troops until World War II.  The structure in the foreground is the remains of a bridge that was destroyed during later floods.

Jefferson Rock.  Traveling to the Continental Congress in 1783, Thomas Jefferson stopped here, looked down at the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and declared that this site was worth crossing the Atlantic for.

Shenandoah Street.  This portion of the park has various small museums detailing town life of the 1850s, African American history, and John Brown's raid.

Looking up High Street.  Beyond the border of the park are restaurants, stores, and homes in historic buildings.

A train heads through the tunnel that passes through Maryland Heights.  Trains began a period of industrial growth for the town from the 1830s on, and Irish and German immigrants who helped build the railroad settled in the area and contributed to local culture.

Harpers Ferry graveyard.  Markers date back to the 18th century.

Gravestone detail.

St. Peter's Catholic Church, on a hill above Shenandoah Street.  The original church was built in the 1830s and underwent extensive renovations in the 1890s.  During the Civil War, the priest supposedly kept the church from being shelled by Confederates by flying a British flag outside, and the church building (along with other churches) was used as a makeshift hospital.

Roughly 70 miles east of Harpers Ferry lies Gunston Hall, home of George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.  Mason was one of only three delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention who refused to sign the U.S. Constitution because it included no Bill of Rights; one was later added based on his Virginia Declaration of Rights and forms the first ten amendments to the Constitution.  This house was constructed in the 1750s.

Gunston Hall, rear view.  The boxwoods are from plantings made by George Mason, although some have had to be trimmed due to disease and/or frost over the years.  Also on site are reconstructed outbuildings for slaves (kitchen, smokehouse, etc.) and a reconstructed schoolhouse where Mason's children were taught.

The final resting place of George Mason and his first wife, Ann, in the family graveyard.

A Devon steer at Gunston Hall.  Members of this breed were used as work animals in the Colonial era, although this one has a pretty easy life.

Hog Island sheep at Gunston Hall.

A view of the Potomac from the rear yard of the Gunston Hall estate.  In Mason's day, a lot of trading took place along the river, and the trees were all cut down to provide an unobstructed view.  These days, the trees are permitted to grow except for one small section close to the river.  The open area in the foreground was part of a deer park that Mason maintained during his residency.

A one-mile hiking trail leads through the Gunston Hall woods to the edge of the Potomac.

One of the smallest national cemeteries in the U.S. is located at Ball's Bluff Regional Park, site of an 1861 Civil War battle in Leesburg, Virginia.  The Battle of Ball's Bluff - the largest Civil War engagement fought in Loudoun County, and the only time in history where a U.S. senator died in combat - ended as a rout of Union troops by the Confederates.  A number of Union soldiers drowned or were picked off as they panicked and tried to cross the nearby Potomac to safety.

The Ball's Bluff National Cemetery has 25 graves containing the partial remains of 54 Union soldiers, only one of whom - James Allen - was identified after the battle.

View of the Potomac through the trees at Ball's Bluff Regional Park.  Union soldiers attempted to cross the Potomac near this site.  The trees pictured here have grown since that time; the park is in the process of restoring the site to its Civil War appearance.

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