They’re sprinkled across the northeast corner of West Virginia known as the Eastern Panhandle and offer great opportunities for small town shopping, an interesting Sunday drive, or a longer getaway. The five towns of Harpers Ferry, Charles Town, Shepherdstown, Martinsburg, and Berkeley Springs share the area’s earliest history as well as plenty of contemporary touches.
The Washington Heritage Trail celebrates the connections to George Washington, who surveyed the area as a young man and returned often, and to his extended family. It also conveniently connects the towns.
First, and possibly most familiar, is Harpers Ferry, which sits at the juncture of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac. Though perhaps best known for its Civil War-era connections to John Brown’s Raid, the town served as a government supply base and manufacture even in 1803 when Meriwether Lewis spent six weeks in town preparing for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Within the park you can view the 580-yard Shenandoah Canal, built in 1807 to improve navigation on the Shenandoah River.
Today, in addition to the National Historical Park, you’ll find restaurants and quaint shops along its steep streets. You can stand on Jefferson Rock, where Thomas Jefferson stood in 1783, and take in the same view of the confluence of the two rivers.
Charles Town was founded by George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles, in 1786. Several members of the Washington family settled in the area, and at least six Washington family homes are still standing. Today, visitors enjoy the historic sites, as well as modern-day horse racing with Colonial roots and a casino.
The courthouse and museum was the site of two major treason trials. The first was the trial of John Brown and his followers after the1859 raid at Harpers Ferry. The second was the 1922 trial of William Blizzard, who was acquitted of murder and treason charges resulting from his leadership of 7,000 miners who battled federal troops in the southern part of the state.
Shepherdstown is West Virginia’s oldest town and sits on the Potomac River where James Rumsey tested his steamboat in 1787. It’s only 70 miles from Washington and retains arts and cultural opportunities you wouldn’t expect, including one of the most respected theater festivals in America. The Contemporary American Theater Festival celebrates its 25th season July 10–Aug. 2.
Exploring German Street, you’ll find the Opera House, which began showing films in 1909 and the new talkies in 1928. Today, it is an intimate performance venue that also continues its film tradition. German Street also features interesting boutiques, good restaurants, and an outfitter to help you explore the outdoor adventures just blocks away.
Just outside of Shepherdstown, Morgan’s Grove Park is the site where Capt. Hugh Stephenson and his company began their “Bee Line March to Cambridge,” a 24-day, 600-mile journey to join Gen. George Washington outside Boston in 1775. The site is recognized as the birthplace of the U.S. Army.
Martinsburg’s railroad yards and roundhouse made it a prime target for both armies during the Civil War and the town changed hands numerous times. The cast-iron roundhouse is the last remaining of its kind. A nearby restored hotel houses the Berkeley County Interpretive Center of the Washington Heritage Trail. The Belle Boyd House recalls the Civil War and the life of Confederate spy Belle Boyd, and features artifacts from later wars. Other sites, such as the General Adam Stephen House and the Triple Brick Museum next door, preserve Martinsburg’s Colonial and post-Civil War history.
The western end of the Washington Heritage Trail is officially Bath, but the world knows it better as Berkeley Springs. Taking the waters here is a tradition that dates back to Colonial times and they have the only outdoor monument to presidential bathing to prove it. George Washington’s Bathtub is a stone tub built to represent the bathing conditions in the Colonial era. Washington visited nearly a dozen times, bathing in the warm mineral waters flowing into what is now a state park in the center of town.
Eclectic restaurants and shops make this stop along the trail worthwhile.
Whether you visit the towns of the Eastern Panhandle for history, health, or just a day away from the bustle, there are plenty of places to eat, shop, and stay along the way.
Washington Heritage Trail: washingtonheritagetrail.org
The cast iron roundhouse in Martinsburg is the last remaining of its kind and was a prime target during the Civil War.