Great Partnerships at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

By Amanda Keith posted 07-14-2015 03:52 PM


This past June, I drove over the Potomac and crossed the West Virginia border into the floodplain that was Harpers Ferry. The historic community, nestled between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, was hidden behind chestnut and black oak trees and surrounded by maple. The national historical park is 70% forest which explains why finding it felt akin to finding a hidden treasure deep in the woods. I turned onto Washington St. to find red brick houses on each side and lawn signs that read, “Civil War Muskets for Sale” as advertised by the local Gunsmith.

 Harpers Ferry Historical National Park  Advertisement for historic military muskets


I was on my way to Harpers Ferry Historical Association’s (HFHA) Annual Membership Meeting and picnic at the Stephen T. Mather Training Center and felt that, with each house I passed, I was stepping back in time to an early colonial settlement rich with stories and controversy; a place that dealt with diverse challenges and holds the military, cultural and natural history of the Civil War, John Brown’s Raid, the development of the C&O Canal and a section of the Appalachian Trail. The authenticity of the area and the sense of living history that Harpers Ferry produces is in thanks to those whose hard work and dedication goes into preserving such a place. By attending HFHA’s annual meeting, I was excited to meet some of those responsible.  

 Cannon at Harpers Ferry


Harpers Ferry Historical Association was established in 1971 to “enhance the interpretive and education programs of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park” and has provided over $1 million in supportive funds. According to HFHA Executive Director Debbie Piscitelli, HFHA’s current park initiatives include promoting the area’s diverse trail system through their “Hike Harpers Ferry” program, led by HFHA Operations Manager Stephanie Sager, and educating visitors about the significance of the park through living history events and workshops. Additionally, HFHA sells interpretive products in their top-notch “bookshop” which HFHA Board President David Gilbert explains is “the lynchpin of [HFHA’s] operation” and a “labor of love, hard work and dedication.”

The Success of a Collaborative Project: A Revised Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal

 Order your copy here!

This year, HFHA completed an extraordinary, collaborative effort for their bookshop and produced a revised edition of the late Thomas F. Hahn’s popular guidebook, Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal which covers 184.5 miles of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and describes its geological and cultural significance. At the meeting, HFHA invited Thomas F. Hahn’s son Chris to talk about his father’s work on the original guide and recalled memories of visiting the banks with him and watching him type about his beloved towpath on an old Osborne – one of the first portable microcomputers. Much like the original guide, the revised edition was the result of enthusiastic volunteers and strong partnerships with the National Park Service (NPS), the C&O Canal Association (COCA), the C&O Canal Trust and local towpath experts. 

HFHA Membership and Publications Specialist Catherine Baldau thanked many of the contributors at the annual meeting -- those who transcribed the original text into a revisable electronic document, Level Walkers, such as CACO’s Steve Dean, who spent hours walking the towpath to correct discrepancies and CACO’s Dr. Karen Gray who verified much of the guidebook’s technical and historical data.  The revised edition, which they hope to update and republish every few years, is a testament to HFHA’s ability to collaborate and empower individuals to help produce a useful tool for avid hikers and walking enthusiasts.


Moving Forward with the NPS Centennial


HFHA is excited to see their sales increase this year and they have several initiatives to further their organization over the next two years. One of which is to promote the National Park Foundation’s Find Your Park Initiative which HFHA feels has helped park visitation rates through increased accessibility at To celebrate Find Your Park and the NPS Centennial, HFHA designed promotional posters, stickers and T-shirts that encourage visitors to find and experience their park and HFHA has set a goal for themselves of 100 new members to celebrate 100 years of national parks. 

In attending HFHA’s annual meeting, I was able to see first-hand what being an HFHA member is like and I was impressed at the strong sense of community and joy the members had in supporting this historical icon. For HFHA members, the education and promotion of such an important place is critical to Harpers Ferry’s survival and its relevancy for future generations of visitors. It’s a controversial and intriguing place that changed the course of this nation’s history (more than once) and is becoming even more attractive to visitors through the enormous efforts of HFHA and their partners.

 Catherine Baldau presents a volunteer recognition award
to Dr. Karen Gray for her help with the towpath guide
 HFHA Members and staff enjoy a potluck picnic together
at their annual membership meeting


Have you visited Harpers Ferry to attend a living history event or to walk the trails? 

If so, become a member to support their programs! Membership is available nationwide and the basic membership of “Armory Worker” is only $25. You’ll receive their newsletter with information updates as well as 15% off purchases in their bookshop. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Harpers Ferry, meeting the HFHA team and picnicking with their members, walking along the park’s historic streets and visiting the picturesque Shenandoah on the south-side. I can't wait to make my next visit there soon!