October 16, 1942: Devastating Flood Strikes Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry nestles between two rivers

A devastating flood struck Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1942. Ironically, it occurred on the 83rd anniversary of John Brown’s raid—the event that forever put Harpers Ferry in the history books.

The town’s early history was tied to water. In the 1740s, settler Robert Harper established a ferry there, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, giving the town its name. Then, based on a recommendation from George Washington, one of the nation’s two government armories and arsenals was built at Harpers Ferry.

The armory and much of the town was wiped out during the Civil War. The town continually struggled to recover. However, periodic flooding dealt townspeople one setback after another. Particularly devastating floods occurred in 1870, 1896, 1924, and 1936. After the ’42 flood destroyed some of the last homes and businesses in the Lower Town, all hope seemed lost. But, West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph stepped in with a plan to turn portions of the town over to the National Park Service. Randolph’s actions helped save Harpers Ferry, and today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park attracts a quarter-of-a-million visitors annually.