Harpers Ferry won’t wow you with the beauty of its architecture. Many of the homes are of the mobile variety and are occupied by seasonal residents only. A sleepy village of 300 people in the winter, the population jumps ten-fold in the summer. The area has several lodging options and many ways to experience the outdoors, but visitors passing through on the River Road will find few reasons to stop in the town itself.
It took a while for folks to decide what to call their town. In the early years, it was called Paint Rock Prairie, then Vailsville (after early settler Horace Vail). The village was platted in 1852 as Winfield by William Hall and Dresden Howard. The Iowa Legislature changed the name to Harpers Ferry in 1860, in honor of pioneer settler David Harper. With a wide, flat plain extending one mile to the bluffs and three miles along the slough, Harper recognized the potential for this area as a steamboat landing, a potential that never really materialized, however. The town never hit it big; it had 300 residents in 1913, about what it claims today.
Among the early settlers of the town were a number of Norwegians, including Ole Larson and Ole Knutson who arrived in 1850. (I just like the sounds of their names, so I included them.) Another early settler, Asle Knutson—another great name—was adept at improvising shelter. After he arrived, he cut down a hollow basswood tree, then cut off a 16-foot section. In one end, he stuffed hay, his belongings, and then himself; he closed the other end with more hay. A knot hole provided ventilation and, with the log oriented to the east, also served as an alarm clock. Asle was single, in case you were wondering.
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Tillinghast Park (1st and Vine Streets) is near the river and a nice spot for a picnic.
The simple white frame building for St. Ann-St. Joseph Catholic Church (307 Orange St.; 563.586.2350) was built in 1897.
Two miles south of town, Harpers Slough (800.824.1424/563.568.2624) has several picnic tables along a narrow strip of land between the river, a mobile home community, and the highway.
Just west of Harpers Ferry, Yellow River State Forest (729 State Forest Rd.; 563.586.2254) is a jewel in the crown of Iowa public lands. The state forest consists of many separate units, but most of the recreational opportunities (hiking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, canoeing, horseback riding) are centered in the Paint Creek Unit, which is about five miles from Harpers Ferry. If you want to canoe on the Yellow River, rentals are available through Big Foot Canoe Rental (563.539.4272); they offer routes that last from two to nine hours and could get you all the way to the Mississippi River.
Getting Out on the River
Maiden Voyage Tours (563.586.2123) runs a variety of eco-tours on the Mississippi River. On Sunday mornings they offer a tour with open boarding from the Harpers Ferry riverfront.
Harpers Ferry hosts a Farmers’ Market on Friday evenings from June to September at Bluffview Park (County Highways X52 & B25).
In August, the town celebrates its heritage with Harpers Ferry Days (563.586.2421), a weekend party with a ski show, parade, music, and festival food.
The building that houses Buck N Bulls (402 W. Chestnut; 563.586.2117) was once known as Jim’s Tavern; it dates to the 1850s. The tavern is a popular summer hangout.
A bit off the river road, Scenic View Campground (420 Old 16 Rd.; 563.535.7347; WiFi) is a full-service campground next to the Yellow River; they have about two dozen sites for overnight campers that range from primitive to full hookups.
The Paint Creek Unit at Yellow River State Forest has two campgrounds with primitive sites, a horse campground, and sites for backcountry backpackers. (Who knew it was possible to go backcountry backpacking in Iowa?)
Harpers Motel (415 W. Chestnut St.; 563.586.2403) has a new owner who is fixing things up; the four rooms are basic and small but clean.
Service is a priority at the Point of View Bed and Breakfast (416 Luster Heights Rd.; 563.586.2061), a newish house atop a ridge just south of Harpers Ferry with four rooms for rent. The house has views of the Mississippi Valley and backwaters (especially from the widow’s nest), plus extensive grounds with hiking trails. They also have a rental cottage that can sleep eight.
Andy Mountain Campground (2335 Andy Mountain Lane; 563.586.2123; WiFi) has five beautiful log cabins available for overnight rental; on summer weekends, there is a two-night minimum stay.
Post Office: 131 N. Greeley Ave.; 563.586.2175.
Dolores Tillinghast Memorial Library: 234 N. 4th St.; 563.586.2524.
Heading upriver? Check out Wexford.
Heading downriver? Check out Waukon Junction.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009