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Railfan Hotspots - Harpers Ferry, WV

The scenic town of Harpers Ferry is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. At this picturesque spot, the tracks of the CSX Cumberland and Shenandoah (Winchester Branch) Subdivisions cross the Potomac on separate bridges that form the sides of a V.  The main line crosses the river at an angle on the “new” B&O bridge completed in 1931. This revised orientation of the river crossing eliminated what had been sharp curves on the approaches to the older bridges that were severely limiting from an operational perspective.  The Winchester Branch crosses the river on an older bridge that dates from 1894 and proceeds through town on a wooden trestle.  This bridge incorporates a pedestrian walkway on one side which enables the Appalachian Trail to cross the river.  It’s possible to walk across the bridge in either direction which makes for an enjoyable hike.  There are only occasional trains on the Winchester Branch but it is quite pastoral as it turns inland beyond Harpers Ferry and climbs away from the Shenandoah River.  Both lines emerge from the Maryland Heights tunnel on the Maryland side of the Potomac just before the bridge crossings.  The tunnel was constructed to reduce the curvature of the bridge approach on the Maryland side, and its western mouth was widened when the “new” B&O bridge was built.

 Harpers Ferry has been the site of important bridge crossings since the building of the B&O railroad, and the current railroad bridges and the remains of old bridges create a dramatic setting.  In fact, the bridge crossings themselves are on the National Register of Historic Places. Historically, the B&O had difficulty acquiring the needed right of way on the Maryland side of the Potomac for its route west.  This led to the decision to build the line on the West Virginia (then Virginia) side and to bridge the river at Harpers Ferry.  Although this solved the right of way problem, it made the railroad vulnerable during the Civil War and it experienced frequent raids by the Confederates.

 Harpers Ferry is the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal in 1859.  The raid inflamed tensions between the North and the South and brought the nation closer to civil war.  Part of the town is designated as Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.  The town has considerable charm due to the large number of 19th century buildings in the Lower Town, its extremely picturesque location along the river front and up the side of the bluffs, and its steep roads and paths.  Its strategic location led to a number of major Civil War battles.  At one time a significant manufacturing and transportation center, Harpers Ferry today is primarily oriented towards the tourist trade. The area also offers considerable recreational opportunities for fishing, canoeing, rafting, and tubing and the Appalachian Trail has its headquarters here.  St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Built in 1833 and altered to its current appearance in 1896, it provides good views from its prominent position on the bluffs overlooking the area. Taken together, the historic setting, the confluence of the rivers, the steep cliffs, and the bridge crossings combine to create a uniquely scenic and picturesque backdrop for train watching.

Access to Harpers Ferry is from U. S. Route 340 several miles west of the Potomac River crossing and about a mile west of the bridge over the Shenandoah River. There are two ways to get to the station (112 Potomac Terrace) and the historic Lower Town:  (1) park at the National Park Visitor’s Center (fee) and take the shuttle bus to the Lower Town (a good option at busy times) or (2) turn onto Union Street and then turn right at Washington Street. Follow Washington Street down the hill through town to the depot and Lower Town commercial area. Limited parking is available in this area but parking can be a challenge at busy times.  There are places to eat, ice cream shops, etc. in the general vicinity of the station.

The station and the railroad at Harpers Ferry hug the river front.  The station, another surviving Baldwin design, is a wooden frame, Victorian-style structure that was built in 1896.  It is located right at the end of the new Potomac bridge and part of the platform actually extends onto the bridge.  The station recently received an extensive renovation and the signal tower at the end overlooking the Potomac that had been removed sometime in the past was restored.   The station was moved a considerable distance to its current location when the main line was realigned over the new bridge in 1931 and it sits on the buried foundation of the ruined armory building.  Both the Amtrak Capitol Limited and MARC commuter trains stop here. The station is a popular place for photography, especially of west bounds coming across the bridge.  A number of pictures of the station and immediate area can be found by clicking here.  

The Maryland side of the Potomac across from Harpers Ferry is also worth a visit.  One option, as mentioned, is to walk across the bridge from Harpers Ferry.  To get there by car, take the first turn off of U. S. Route 340 onto route 180 (Keep Tryst Rd.) after crossing the Potomac bridge.  Go a short distance and turn right on Sandy Hook Road.  After squeezing through the small community of Sandy Hook between the tracks and the houses, the road crosses over the tracks on a narrow bridge near the east entrance to the Maryland Heights tunnel and then passes under the ends of the railroad bridges where the tracks exit the tunnel.  This part of the C&O canal towpath is very scenic with excellent views of the river and there are some small parking lots along the road here.  It’s possible to park here and walk across the bridge to Harpers Ferry.
Thanks to member Hank Anderson for contributing to this page.