Betting on History

Race Track and Casino Aren’t only Draws to Charles Town, W.Va.

By Christine Snyder | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.07.14 – Destinations, Travel

The historic Eastern Panhandle village of Charles Town is winning over visitors, and not just to Hollywood Casino, the city’s thoroughbred horse track and gambling mecca. Beyond the kaleidoscope of lights and slot machines tuned to C major, visitors can find other draws to this West Virginia city—in large part because so much happened here in the nation’s earliest days.

Charles Town boasts several ties to George Washington. The future Father of our Country surveyed in the county starting in 1747 and his younger brother Charles founded the city in 1786. The local landscape had also seen James and Dolley Madison who were wed at the still-lovely Harewood mansion here in 1794, abolitionist John Brown, African-American Civil War icon Martin Delany and other historical figures of note—even Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

“We live in one of the most historic regions of the United States,” explains Lois Turco, a cheerleader for the region who partnered with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a marathon champion and Jefferson County family physician, to create a distance run that starts just outside of Charles Town in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. In 2010, just the second year for Freedom’s Run, it became the largest running event staged anywhere in West Virginia.

Since that success, Turco has advocated an expansion of what she calls cultural tourism—putting the area’s unique history front and center.

 “Where else in the U.S. can you showcase the history of this nation and tell so many stories?” she asks.

In Charles Town, Turco’s message is particularly embraced at the Jefferson County Museum at 200 E. Washington St., where artifacts on view include a poignant letter written by a grieving President Washington less than three months before his own death. Writing to his former aide-de-camp Col. Burgess Ball, Washington  grapples with the news of his brother’s death.  “I was the first, and am now the last, of my father’s children by the second marriage who remain,” he writes in the Sept. 22, 1799, note. “When I shall be called upon to follow them is known only to the giver of life.”

The museum, founded in 1965 and reopening for the season in mid-March, also has an artifact related to the president typically relegated to the opposite end of the “best presidents” spectrum: James Buchanan. On display is a gown belonging to Harriet Lane Buchanan, niece of the president who’d spent part of her formative years in a boarding school in Charles Town and went on to serve as First Lady when the lifelong bachelor was elected the nation’s 15th chief executive. Fashionable, attentive to the treatment of Native Americans and other social causes, and dedicated to the arts, Harriet Buchanan said to have been as popular during her uncle’s term in the White House as Jackie Kennedy would be a century later.

Another attention-getter inside the museum is the stout wooden wagon that carried John Brown to his execution on Dec. 2, 1859. The museum also has a bit of rope said to have been used to hang the abolitionist. Also on view: Civil War weapons and bullets, fine silver, 19th-century toys and dolls, farm tools, uniforms from World War I, and artifacts from Storer College, the famed school in Harpers Ferry founded to educate African-Americans after the Civil War. There’s also a display of Harpers Ferry-manufactured muskets and Hall rifles and items related to Delany, born in 1812 into a family of free African-Americans in Charles Town, then part of the slave state of Virginia. It was illegal at the time for anyone but white citizens to learn to read and write, but Delany learned and went on to become a physician, scientist, inventor, author, newspaper publisher and Union Army major—one of the most prominent African-Americans of the 19th century.

The museum also is home to an eye-catching penny farthing bicycle from the late 1800s and original artworks by Catherine C. Critcher, a Paris-trained artist who lived for decades in Charles Town. She’d taught painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and created portraits of many of her powerful contemporaries, including President Woodrow Wilson.

Tucked into the bottom floor of the Charles Town Library, the museum is cultivating a higher profile these days. “We don’t want our museum to be a secret,” says Jane Rissler, a Jefferson County native who left retirement to become the museum’s curator in 2012. The museum closes each winter to allow its small staff to clean and prep for another year. A free opening-day reception is planned for March 15, from 1 to 4 p.m.

Outside the museum on the streets of Charles Town, there’s plenty of history to enjoy, too. The Jefferson County Courthouse, on the corner of George and Washington streets, is the majestic site of Brown’s treason trial as well as the controversial 1922 trial where Bill Blizzard, a southern West Virginia union leader, was acquitted of charges, including treason and attempted murder, stemming from the Battle of Blair Mountain 250 miles away in Logan County.

Also downtown is the lovely, historic Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery, where dozens of George Washington’s relatives and descendants were laid to rest.

Ann Fern of Charles Town Ghost Tours regularly leads creepy excursions through downtown as well as the cemetery.

Walk to 515 S. Samuel St., and you’ll find the Gibson-Todd House, the property where Brown met his death before a crowd including future Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. (The Victorian home on the property wasn’t built until 1891.) Also present at Brown’s execution: Booth, the actor who traveled from Richmond, Va., curious to see Brown in the courtroom and to entertain trial-goers come evening with Shakespearean readings at the Episcopal Reading Room on Liberty Street.

Of course, history isn’t the only attraction here. Charles Town offers no shortage of thoroughly modern pleasures, from the gourmet foods and vintage finds at Stephanie Pierson Smith’s et cetera, an eclectic boutique at 130 W. Washington St., to a lunch or dinner of hummus, kebobs and other tastes next door at Alfredo’s Ristorante & Mediterranean Grill.

Another great pick on Washington Street: Kate Brown’s Albert and Arnold’s, a diminutive shop with a vast selection of fine wines and cheeses, plus outstanding sandwiches made to order. Try the Stonecrest, with roast beef, a bleu cheese-Merlot sauce, French cornichon pickles and onions on perfect, crusty, just-baked bread.

Saturday mornings starting in mid-April, the Charles Town Farmers Market will draw crowds to the 100 block of South Samuel Street near the library.  Patrons come for live music and fresh tastes, including fruits, vegetables, bread, eggs, pies, pastries and salsa, plus Black Dog Coffee roasted in nearby Shenandoah Junction, goat cheese made in Shepherdstown, grass-fed beef raised in Kearneysville, and herbs and greens harvested at Brian Tanguay’s Tangy Produce aquaponic farm in Shepherdstown.

Oh, and if you have a few dollars left over, there’s still a little betting parlor down the street.

Want to go?

What: Jefferson County Museum
Where: 200 E. Washington St., Charles Town
When: Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, starting March 15.
How much: $3 for adults. Free to those 18 or younger and to students.
For details: Call 304-725-8628, email curator Jane Rissler [email protected] or go online to