Flooding and Climate Change

Aerial view of eight archeological digs with four archeologists on site at the location of the Harpers Ferry Armory along the floodplain of the Potomac River.
Excavation of U.S. Armory

NPS Image / Robert E. Brzostowski

Floods are a fact of life in river valleys. Early residents of Harpers Ferry
did not know that clear-cutting forests would increase the number and
severity of floods. Today
, floods threaten the traces of human history
that make Harpers Ferry special. P
recious cultural resources like historic
buildings and unexcavated archeological sites can be washed away.
Our forests have rebounded, but our continued use of fossil fuels adds
to a climate that increases the chance of more severe floods.
Follow the
timeline below to learn more about our flood history in Harpers Ferry.

A Clear-Cut Lesson in History. A timeline showing flood years next to energy practices at the time.
A Clear-Cut in History (Flooding) infographic

Nicole Coumes, NPS


Trees, Coal, and the Climate Change Connection
Trees can be useful to us in many ways, but have you thought about their benefits when faced with floods and climate change? Trees absorb excess water and act as natural flood barriers (Natural Resource Defense Council, 2000). Trees also store carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is causing our climate to change. Settlers cut thousands of trees to make charcoal in the 1700s through 1800s. Unchecked industries cut down whole forests after the Civil War. Huge amounts of topsoil eroded away, stripping the land of minerals and nutrients. Harpers Ferry lost bridges and buildings to floods. A 36.5 foot high flood strengthened by deforestation upstream swept away the top three floors of the Shenandoah Pulp Mill in 1936. It never reopened for business.

On left, black and white photo of Shenandoah Pulp Mill. On right, colorful photo with green shrubs growing in between the stone ruins of Shenandoah Pulp Mill with the top three floors missing and the foundation and first floor walls still remaining.
Shenandoah Pulp Mill before the 1936 flood, and the ruins that remain today.

Photo Credit (photo on left): Harpers Ferry NHP
Photo Credit (photo on right): Carolyn Caggia, NPS


Coal revolutionized Harpers Ferry when it was adopted as the main source of energy. Coal fueled stoves in homes and powered industries like U.S. Armory. We still burn coal to power homes and industry today. When we burn coal, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change (Environmental Protection Agency, 2015). Changes in the climate will bring more intense storms to the Northeast, creating more severe flooding (U.S. National Climate Assessment, 2014).


Join Harpers Ferry in Combating Climate Change
The history of Harpers Ferry includes revolutionary industrial achievement. What sort of achievement will mark your history as we all deal with climate change? Actions large and small contributed to climate change, but many small steps can also reduce its effects and improve our future. One action we have taken at our park is switching all of our shuttle buses to biodiesel fuel. Join us and try out these three climate friendly actions to combat climate change impacts at Harpers Ferry and in your community.

Climate friendly actions:

  1. Use recycling bins at home and in the park to reduce waste
  2. Tell a friend what you learned to raise awareness
  3. Carpool on your next visit to reduce emissions


Environmental Protection Agency, (2015, July 7). Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html

Gilbert, D. (1999). Waterpower: Mills, factories, machines & floods at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1762-1991. Harpers Ferry, WV: Harpers Ferry Historical Association.

IPCC, (2007). Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.) Climate Change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

National Park Service, (n.d.). Memorable Floods at Harpers Ferry. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/memorable-floods-at-harpers-ferry.htm

Natural Resource Defense Council, (2000, March 3). What is clearcutting? Retrieved July 27, 2015, from http://www.nrdc.org/land/forests/fcut.asp

Melillo, J.M., Richmond, T.T.C., Richmond, and Yohe, G.W., (2014). Climate change impacts in the United States: The third national climate assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Last updated: November 20, 2015

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
National Park Service
PO Box 65

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425


304 535-6029

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