Abolitionist John Brown stayed at Mary Ritner’s Boarding House, 225 E. King St. in 1859, under the alias of Isaac Smith. It was there that he planned an attack on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Chambersburg is also where Brown met with Frederick Douglass to tell him of his plans and to encourage him to support his plans. Douglass did not.
Brown’s plan was to take the weapons seized there and give them to slaves, who would then fight for their freedom. Brown was captured and later hanged for his deeds, while those who survived the raid returned to Chambersburg.
Brown’s actions stirred the nation’s unrest over slavery. Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said, “The John Brown Raid is looked upon by most historians as being the spark which became the inferno of the American Civil War.”
Once the war started, Chambersburg saw more Southern incursions than any other town north of the Mason-Dixon Line, with invasions in 1862, 1863 and 1864. While in Chambersburg in 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to head east, to Gettysburg. That massive battle is considered the turning point of the War. Chambersburg has a marker on the street where Lee made the decision.
A year after the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers burned Chambersburg, giving it the distinction of being the only town north of the Mason-Dixon Line to be burned by Confederate soldiers during the war.
The John Brown/Mary Ritner Boarding House survived the burning of Chambersburg. It was renovated and reopened in May 2009. Tours are available.