Nearby W. Va., healing for body and soul

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Glenda C. Booth

A little chunk of West Virginia dangles like an overturned bowl on the northeastern tip of the state, dipping into Maryland and Virginia. It’s known as West Virginia’s eastern panhandle and is the most visited part of the state.

If you’re traveling there from here, the area is a welcoming introduction to the Mountain State. You won’t see sharp peaks, mountain “hollers” or coal mines there. That’s further west and south.

Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp calls the panhandle “a special little corner of the world.” It has a rich mix of history, culture, shopping, dining and nature, only 90 minutes from Washington and Baltimore.

You can go back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, visit George Washington family sites, bathe in healing waters, fish, raft rivers, hike trails, and go to festivals, plays and concerts. In between towns, you can savor the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and rural vistas.

Shepherdstown

Shepherdstown, population 1,200, is the state’s oldest town (250 next year). It’s a very walkable, postcard village of well-preserved brick buildings, some from the 1700s.

“You won’t see a chain store or fast food drive-through,” touts Surkamp. Take O’Hurley’s General Store, for example, which sells time-tested products like fruit presses, sleds, fire tools, dinner bells and crockery. On Thursday nights, O’Hurley’s features free Celtic or bluegrass music.

Pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure at the Visitor Center (www.shepherdstownvisitorscenter.com), 102 West German St., before your stroll to the one-of-a-kind shops and eateries in what are some of the state’s oldest buildings in the National Historic District.

There’s a story behind most of the buildings. During the Civil War, many on German Street were used as hospitals, and amputated arms and legs were flung out the second story windows.

During the Revolutionary War, 100 men from each town formed the Bee Line here and marched 600 miles to Boston in 24 days to reinforce George Washington’s fledgling army.

Behind the Visitor Center is the Rumsey Steamboat Museum showcasing an invention by the man Thomas Jefferson called the “most talented mechanical genius he’d ever seen,” James Rumsey, who was 20 years ahead of Robert Fulton and his steamboat.

A novel must-see is the Little House, a 10-foot-tall, two-story “house” that youngsters built in 1929 as student teachers taught collaboration.

Around town, keep your eye out for the 200-year-old “horse stones” in front of homes. They helped people get on and off their horses gracefully.

For a meal, you might hobnob with luminaries at the Beaux Arts-style Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant. Nancy Reagan was eating pumpkin soup here with columnist George Will in 1986 when the Challenger spacecraft blew apart over the Atlantic Ocean.

Or try the Blue Moon Café, where you can dine inside or outside. The Town Run stream, never dry and fed by over 20 natural springs, splices through town and gurgles right through the restaurant.

For more on Shepherdstown, see www.shepherdstownvisitorscenter.com.

Harpers Ferry

Wedged between Maryland and Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge, Harpers Ferry, population 310, is a national historical park (http://www.nps.gov/hafe), a picturesque town perched on a hill at the mid-point of the Appalachian Trail.

You’ll no doubt agree with Thomas Jefferson who wrote about this area in 1783, “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

Harpers Ferry is best known for white abolitionist John Brown, who seized the U.S. Armory and Arsenal here to start a slave revolt. He was found guilty of treason and hanged. The National Park Service information center and the John Brown Museum tell the story and more. The town is full of historic buildings and at times living history demonstrations.

There’s very little parking in town, so the easiest way to visit is to park at the visitor center on U.S. 340 and take a shuttle in. Visit www.historicharpersferry.com to learn more.

Check www.wveasterngateway.com/calendar.php for upcoming events, such as “Living History, In the Shadows of John Brown: The 1861 Battle of Bolivar Heights” on Oct. 15 and the Old Tyme Christmas celebration from Dec. 2 to 4 and 10 to 11.

Charles Town

Charles Town (www.charlestownwv.us) has history, too; after all, the town is named for George Washington’s brother, Charles, its founder in 1786. There are more Washingtons buried in the Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery than anywhere in the world, with more than 70 known graves.

Get a self-guided walking map at the Visitor Center, 108 N. George St. John Brown’s 1859 trial and hanging took place at the courthouse. You’ll find Brown artifacts in the museum of the Charles Town Library, and a letter written by George Washington in 1799.

For gamblers, the Hollywood Casino and Charles Town Racetrack (www.ctownraces.com) may hit the spot. Over 4 million people have tried their luck at its thoroughbred horse races, 112 table games and 4,000 slot machines. Just south is the Summit Point Raceway, scene of car and motorcycle races, and a favorite racing site of the late actor Paul Newman (www.summitpoint-raceway.com).

Berkeley Springs

The panhandle’s “healing waters,” frequented by Native Americans, have long lured travelers. Berkeley Springs (www.berkeleysprings.com) claims to be the country’s “first spa,” a place where George and Martha Washington soaked.

Berkeley Springs State Park is a seven-acre compound of warm mineral springs and an 1815 Roman Bath House with private chambers and water heated to 102 degrees.

The town has a museum, restaurants, boutiques, B&Bs, motels and a brochure for a 70-mile self-guided driving tour of more than a dozen sites connected to George Washington, including “George Washington’s bathtub,” where our founding father “abated his fevers.”

The Country Music Hall of Fame honors West Virginia country music legends and offers a tour of their recording studio.

From Oct. 8 to 9, the town holds an Apple Butter Festival and parade, and from Nov. 13 to 14 there will be a Festival of Light, featuring practitioners of spiritual and physical healing.

JeffersonCountyand beyond

Jefferson Countians like to tout their connections to the father of our country who surveyed in the area in 1748 and bought land. Over time, the Washington family built at least 10 estates in Jefferson County. Four still stand, but are only open to the public at certain times. Ask at the visitor centers.

The Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society’s (http://jeffctywvblackhistory.org) African American Heritage Map can open your eyes to an often overlooked history — spots like the Charles Town Coloured Grave Yard, and the Hilltop House in Harper’s Ferry where strategies for the anti-slavery Niagara Movement were plotted.

The C&O Canal towpath for walking, biking and hiking is in Maryland, but just across the Potomac, as is the 3,000-acre Antietam National Battlefield (www.nmps.gov/anti), site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, where the warfare was “as loud as Niagara Falls.”

Visit www.wveasterngateway.com for travel tips, activities and events or http://justjefferson.com for videos of important sites.

Virginian Susan Koscis says about the panhandle, “I love the area because it is quiet, peaceful and a green corner of the world with friendly people.”

If you go

You need a car to explore most of the panhandle.

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train stops in Harpers Ferry seven days a week. A commuter MARC train goes to Duffield, 10 minutes from Shepherdstown on week days, but there is no public transportation, not even a taxi. Hotels may arrange transportation from the train station.

Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.