How Harpers Ferry Became Part of West Virginia

Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers.

Harpers Ferry’s move from Virginia into West Virginia parallels the other historic events in the town. The reasons had their origins in both economics and politics.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Harpers Ferry is how the town became part of West Virginia. At the time of its best known historical event—John Brown’s October 1859 raid on a federal arsenal in an effort to spark an uprising of slaves—it was in Virginia.

Not until June 20, 1863—nearly four years after Brown’s raid—was West Virginia admitted into the Union as the 35th state. Some contend West Virginia was an illegal state, noted Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Their basic argument was that West Virginia seceded from Virginia and fought a war over secession. Those who seceded lost and West Virginia remained as a seceded state, he said.

But economics and politics played a role. A major factor was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which ran along the Potomac River where Harpers Ferry is located, and was essential for the economy and to move troops at the time of the Civil War. The town was at a strategic point on the railroad as well as at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley.

Frye, a Civil War historian, also discussed the origins and history of Harpers Ferry, in a West Virginia Public Broadcasting documentary on the town. Both Union and Confederate troops made frequent maneuvers at Harpers Ferry.

The three easternmost counties in the so-called Panhandle region—Jefferson (where Harpers Ferry is), Berkeley, and Morgan counties—supported the Confederacy. Moving them into the newly created pro-Union state of West Virginia thereby placed the entire railroad under Union control.

Union Desire to Control B&O Railroad Prompted Making Eastern Panhandle Part of West Virginia

This portion of Virginia, including Harpers Ferry, was gerrymandered into West Virginia specifically because of the B&O Railroad, Frye said. The mountain range west of the Blue Ridge became the eastern border of West Virginia to provide a defense against Confederate invasion. The narrow Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia in the northeast portion of the state came to border Maryland and Virginia.

Prior to the establishment of the new state, the northwestern portion of Virginia was becoming more industrialized with improved transportation through the extension of the B&O Railroad to other areas of the state. It did not have to rely as much on Richmond and other markets in eastern Virginia.

With its creation, a simple timeline reference for what happened is this, Frye pointed out. When the Gettysburg campaign was launched, Robert E. Lee’s army left Virginia and went to Pennsylvania. When the Gettysburg campaign ended, Lee’s army left Pennsylvania and came into West Virginia. But its establishment was two years in the making prior to Gettysburg, Frye added.

Longtime Dispute between Western and Eastern Virginians Led to Calls for Secession

For a long period of time, western and eastern Virginians did not get along, Frye said. Eastern Virginians had not treated them well in their opinion, he noted. For example, slaves owned by eastern Virginians were not taxed. Yet, cattle owned by western Virginians were taxed.

Eastern Virginians did not favor free schooling, which western Virginians supported but did not receive because of the actions of state lawmakers in Richmond. In addition, western Virginians wanted internal improvements for their part of the state such as railroads, highways, turnpikes. The Virginia Legislature, controlled by eastern Virginians, was adamantly opposed to these steps.

When the Civil War began and Virginia voted to secede from the Union in 1861 and join the Confederate government, the decision was opposed by the counties of western Virginia counties, which were pro-Union and anti-Richmond. The western Virginia counties collectively declared the Richmond government illegal and formed their own government in Wheeling, Virginia, which remained loyal to the United States.

That government then petitioned the United States Congress for admission into the Union as the 35th state. Since there were no southerners in the Congress to debate this nor to deny this, the state of West Virginia was approved. In June 1863, the new state was created.

Virginia Sought to Reclaim West Virginia After New State’s Formation

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Harpers Ferry, along with all of both Berkeley and Jefferson counties, were separated from Virginia and incorporated into West Virginia. The inhabitants of the counties as well as the Virginia Legislature protested. Virginia sued to bring West Virginia back under its fold. Previously, western Virginia extended nearly to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River. In 1860, Virginia was one of the largest states in the union. The creation of the new state resulted in Virginia losing almost half its territory.

Virginia went before the U.S. Supreme Court. By this time, Ulysses S. Grant was president and southerners on the court such as Chief Justice Roger Taney had died, he said. Therefore the court was more sympathetic to the North and ruled in favor of West Virginia in 1872 as a legal state, seven years after the war.

Up until 1872, Charles Town, now the county seat of Jefferson County, West Virginia, on all its newspaper headings and mastheads had continued to list the city’s location as being in Virginia.