Bolivar, WV History | Harpers Ferry, WV history

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia


- was visited by George Washington on his very first surveying expedition at the age of 17.

- was cited by Thomas Jefferson, after a visit, as such a beautiful spot that it was worth a trip across the Atlantic.

- was the starting place of the Lewis and Clarke expedition.

- was the site of the first crossing of the Potomac by a railroad, on the first structural steel bridge in the world.

- was the industrial town where using interchangeable parts in a manufacturing process was first invented and proven practical.

- was the site of the John Brown raid which precipitated the Civil War

.- was the first command of Stonewall Jackson, who raised and trained his famed Brigade here.

- was the site of three Civil War battles, the major one involving over 30,000 troops on both sides which resulted in the largest surrender of US troops until Bataan in WWII.

- was a bastion of elevating African Americans, with the first real academic college (Storer College) to educate freed slaves in all aspects of higher learning, rather than sewing and other trades.

- was the site of the Founding in the US of the Niagara movement, which later evolved into the NAACP.

- was a town which, despite unfortunate racism by some, way before its time encouraged African-American entrepreneurs, one of whom built and managed the fabled Hilltop House Hotel.

- was a major retreat center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for many notables, including seven presidents, Mark Twain, and many others.

- was cited by art history experts as the most "painted town" in America, because of its spectacular scenery.

Bolivar, West Virginia

The land that constitutes present-day Bolivar and its surrounding neighbors has provided Native American artifacts dating back to the 12th Century. This region was the home of tribes of the Iroquois Nation. Explorer Louis Michel, looking for land for a Swiss settlement, reported Indians in the area during his 1706 travels along the west bank of the Potomac River.


The town as we know it today traces its formative roots to the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. Originally part of land granted to Thomas, Lord Fairfax by King Charles II of England, Bolivar was settled by speculators, businessman, and farmers.

One such individual was Gersham Keyes, a contemporary of Robert Harper. While Harper settled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Keyes settled on land that is now within the township of Bolivar and built his home and tavern on Washington Street. According to tax records for 1790, Keyes owned a gristmill, sawmill, smithy or blacksmith shop, and two distilleries.

Divisions of land sold from the major land grants were formed into farms, homes and a small town named Mudfort, today known as Bolivar. In 1810, Charles Varle surveyed the area and noted Mudfort had “A good tavern, several large stores for goods, a library, a physician and a Professor of English… .” According to oral history, Mudfort got its name because of boys with good throwing arms. Children from Harpers Ferry would come up the hill on what is now Washington Street, and be repelled by the boys of Mudfort who literally used mud balls to send the approaching children back.

In 1825, citizens of Mudfort and surrounding lands petitioned the Virginia Assembly to become a town, named after South American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar. Approval from the Assembly was granted on December 29, 1825.

The armory in Harpers Ferry was a large part of the economic engine that drove development in the Eastern Panhandle. Though much of the surrounding land was agricultural, Bolivar had less land to work. Instead, residents owned and operated gristmills, distilleries and smelting facilities. While one third of the county was African American, mostly slave laborers, Bolivar’s African American population was 10 percent of the town, and a number of freedmen settled here before the Civil War. Harpers Ferry employed large numbers of workers, many of whom were transients.

In contrast, Bolivar was home to farmers, merchants and skilled armorers. Prior to the Civil War, armory workers who put down roots often selected Bolivar. The Eastern Panhandle was the site or staging area for many Civil War battles, and the confluence of the two rivers mirrored the confluence of spying from each side, and scavenging from local farms and families.

As a battle site, Bolivar is best known for an engagement which resulted in the largest Union surrender in the history of the war. Twelve thousand Union troops were captured in the Battle of Bolivar Heights. Advances and retreats by Union and Confederate troops laid waste to much of the area through battle damage and fire. Property values were cut in half, and many residents left the area.

In 1904, while making repairs on the foundation of the Bolivar Methodist Church, workers found the remains of a Union soldier. His canteen and the buttons from his uniform bore out the fact that the body had been there since the Civil War. A memorial window was placed in the vestibule of the church, bearing this inscription: “In memory of an unknown Union soldier whose remains were found under this church in 1904. Wounded and alone he crept to shelter."

The armory in Harpers Ferry was destroyed during the Civil War, and the industrial prosperity of the area came to a halt. Ultimately, in 1884, the armory land was sold to a pulp mill operator.

Floods in 1870 severely damaged the buildings that were left along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. For almost 20 years after the Civil War, industry in the eastern panhandle languished. A variety of textile and paper mills powered by water sustained much of the local economy as those in Bolivar continued farming and merchant activities. The population was much lower than it had been before the Civil War. Floods continued to ravage the area and the local economy. The floods in the late 19th Century effectively ended industrial production in the area.

The late 19th Century saw school improvements that had the strong support of local taxpayers. A nine month school year was instituted and in 1887 a new idea was adopted for Jefferson County’s rural schools. The idea is a school as we know it today. Students were assigned grades by age and ability with specific goals for learning each year and progression to graduation. Before this time, some students were taught the same things year after year until they left. Our innovative school superintendent was William Wilson who went on to serve the Nation as Postmaster General where he initiated rural postal delivery.

World War II found Bolivar again a strong supporter of the national government and the military. Hundred of soldiers served from Jefferson County: dozens from Bolivar. World War II marked a major change in Bolivar with the establishment of the National Park at Harpers Ferry. The Park both preserved and reconstructed our neighboring town. New bridges and highways opened our area today to tourists from the Baltimore-Washington area. The Charles Town racetrack was another attraction, which began just before World War II. Still a rural economy, Bolivar became more interwoven with the regional economy and has shown itself resilient in moving from an agricultural and self-contained merchant community into an economic development area ranging from Frederick, Maryland to Winchester, Virginia.

Acknowledgment: This history is abridged from originally compiled by local artist and Bolivar resident, Lisa Phillips with additional material from Jean Reed, Robert Menefee, and Katherine Collins


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First Zion Baptist Church Restoration Project

The Foundation has purchased First Zion Baptist Church on W. Ridge Street in Harpers Ferry in order to preserve the building for future use as cultural center for Harpers Ferry and Bolivar. The site will also serve a significant role in interpreting history. 

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