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John Brown Weekend

This weekend at Harpers Ferry is the commemoration of John Brown's raid of the federal arsenal there and what some historians contend was the real beginning of the Civil War. Brown's life mission was to end slavery. Although he failed 150 years ago to obtain the guns needed to arm local slaves and was hung for his actions, he did badly frighten slave owners and guaranteed himself a place in history.

Fifty years ago, the National Park Service dropped plans to commemorate the event when conservative politicians objected. The upcoming three day program of lectures, tours, films, plays and re-enactments should make up for that.

The commemoration occurs on the exact dates of the 1859 raid, Oct. 16 to 18. Events begin Friday at 2 p.m. at the author's tent and end Sunday with a 5 p.m. stage performance. Harpers Ferry, the town and the park, is worth a visit anytime, but this weekend will offer some one-time-only events.

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, a commemorative walk is planned for descendants of townspeople, militia, Marines, raiders and John Brown with readings from their ancestors' involvement in the raid. On Saturday, there will be a two-mile, two-hour hike led by rangers at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. of some 30 buildings and sites involved in the story of the raid. Also on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the United States Postal System is offering a special commemorative postmark for the John Brown Raid Sesquicentennial,

The raid, which will be remembered in song, stage presentations and even a puppet show, was a shocking event when it occurred. Historians have compared it to 9/11. The shock waves that followed the raid and Brown's execution forced ordinary Americans to acknowledge slavery was an issue that would not go away.

If you go, plan to park at the visitors' center lot, pay an entrance fee and ride a shuttle bus to the historic area. It is well marked and easy to find. From personal experience, I can tell you this is the way to do it. There is no where for an outsider to park a car on the narrow commercial or residential streets of the town.

However, on this weekend when huge crowds are expected, arrive very early to get a space at the visitors' parking lot. When it is full, the Park Service has announced it will close the lot until spaces open up. That could leave you sitting in your car for a very long time and missing what you came to see.

My colleagues have also written about John Brown and Harpers Ferry. See an excellent story by Michael Ruane and a piece in the Travel section by free-lancer Scott Elder.

By Linda Wheeler  |  October 16, 2009; 7:38 PM ET
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