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Full text of "The history and operation of the ferry formerly at Harper's Ferry / by John J. Velten"

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Thesis required for initiation 
into Tau Beta Pi 


Presented by: 
John J . Velten 

April 17, 1931 


The site of Harper's Ferry was first Mentioned 
in 1719 in the chronicles of Virginia as Shenandoah, Thir- 
teen y^ars later, 17 3?-, one of Kite's party, a German named 
Peter Stephens, settled at the fork of the Shenandoah and 
Potomac Rivers, He remained there until 1747 when he sold 
his title to Robert Harper, of Oxford England. Harper, 
being skilled in the erection of mills, immediately con- 
structed one on his property and ferried anyone, -who brought 
grain to 'lis mill, across either the Shenandoah or the Poto- 
mac r.iver, free of charge. The success of his undertaking 
may be illustrated by fact that he was able to pay all his 
debts in two years. The original landings of the ferry are 
lost but, the approximate position of on<*. on the West Vir- 
ginia side is well known. A more recent landing still re- 
mains directly in front of the old arsenal on Bolivar Heights. 
As the Valley of Virginia became more densely settled, 
pers Ferry was seen to be an important outlet to the Atlan- 
tic Ocean. In 176 3-64 the ferry was recognized by the As- 
sembly of Virginia and, Harper was given the authority to 
charge a ferry fe^ wtiich he never did. Harper died after 
thirty-five years residence there and in his will desired 
that his successors should continue his practice of making 
no charge to those taking grain to his mill. The establish- 


ment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to the Wager Pridge 
acrosc the Potomac in 18 32 generally reduced the usefulness 
of the ferry and a little later caused its discontinuation. 



How long the nomad Indian tribes roamed, and 
lived in the proximity of the confluence of the Shenandoah 
and Potomac Rivers is not known, nor is there any accurate 
information concerning the activity of the early pioneers 
■and settlers in this region of abundant game, and indescrib- 
able scenic wonders, Jefferson's appreciation of this splen- 
dor is given in these simple direct words; "This is worth 
a trip across the Atlantic to see." 

There were pioneers who had explored this region 
before 17 32, but it was not until then that Joist Hite and 
his party of sixteen families, of German extraction, cut 
their way from York, crossed the Cohongoronton, now called 
the Potomac, and settled in the country surrounding Harpers' 
Ferry, west of the Blue Ridge, Hite, recognising the value 
of the land took possession of it according to the ancient 
Indian fashion of title, by virtue of the "tomahawk blaze." 
The grant of King Charles II to the Lord Proprietor allowed 
a certain acreage to each man. Hite, however, contrary to 
the letter of the charter, placed titles In the names of 
every man, woman, and child in his party. This practice 
soon resulted in controversy with Lord Thomas Fairfax to 
whom the original charter was given, and ended with a loss 
to Hite of one-third of his entries. 


Peter Stephens, a member of Kites' party, waa the 
first to settle in the Hole, the former title of Harper -.'b 
Ferry, one very much unfitting the .grandeur, 'out more ap- 
propriately describing the geographical formation. With hiB 
wife and three children he established hiB home, consisting 
of a cabin, orchard, garden ■and three acres of meadow. At 
regular intervals he was visited by a peddler, peter Hoff- 
man, who travelled from Baltimore to Frederick Town and 
down into the Valley of Virginia., exchanging his city-made 
products of l«ad, shot, powder, hooks and lines, for the 
furs obtained by the trappers. An intimate friendship ex- 
isted between Stephens and Hoffman, they becoming known to 
the neighboring settlers as the "two peters." It was the 
latter who was instrumental in bringing about Harper's jour- 
ney to the Hole and his subsequent purchase of the place. 

Robert Harper, after whom the ferry was named, 
was born in Oxford, England, in the year of 1703. His edu- 
cation was technical, along the lines of architecture and 
building. The Harper family, because of the high expense 
of such training, are believed to have been financially in- 
dependent. He made his trip across the Atlantic on the 
"Morning Star," accompanied by his brother Joseph, who was 
skilled in the art of fancy wood carving. 

His aspirations in Philadelphia, the city of his 
choice, vere more than realized, soon becoming renown, for 
hia improvements on buildings, and the experimentation and 


c on struct ion of mills. However, after a period of more than 
ten years stay in the Quaker City, he met with reverses in- 
volving serious financial loss, which discouraged and left 
him with a desire to leave Philadelphia and return to England. 

After paying his debts, incurred ay the purchase 
of a parcel of land with a defective title, and by the build- 
ing of a church in Frankford, he set out for the Valley of 
Virginia to construct a mill on the Opeqon River for the 
Quakers of that region, Af t er a week of travel he arrived 
in a small hamlet of a dozen houses called Frederick Town, 
where he first met Peter Hoffman. The latter, on the date 
of their meeting, arrived in the town riding one horse and 
leading two others packed with different articles with which 
he could trade the settlers. 

Upon the inducement of a shorter route and won- 
derful scenery, Harper accompanied Hoffman thru a part of 
Maryland, now valuable as productive farms, reaching the 
river a short distance below the fork. He found his com- 
panion to be very amiable, and his conversation, showing the 
possession of sound, common sense and good judgment with 
respect to the future possibilities of the valley, made the 
difficult trip seem shorter and more pleasant. 

Upon reaching the junction of the two rivers a 
marvelous scene presented itself in all of its premature 
grandeur. For a time Harper was astounded and speechless, 
never before having witnessed such natural beauty. To him- 


solf, he finally exclaimed, "0, thou Great Being above, 
whose hands but thine could have created so much sublimity 
and gradeur." There were seen the virgin forests with the 
growth of centuries jutting from the rocky points, and two 
beautiful rivers racing to naeet each other only to madly 
dash themselveE against the massive unyielding rock of the 
shores. Of all the places he had ever seen, he realised 
that this was best calculated to make him happy. 

Stephens greeted the travelers warmly and at once 
began a conversation with much spirit. Although it was 
spoken in German, Harper knew they were referring to him as 
a great mill builder from Philadelphia. Anxious to see as 
much of the valley as possible Harper arose early the fol- 
lowing morning and walked into the neighboring hills. Upon 
returning to the Stephen's home he found Hoffman ready to 
depart, his business with the neighbors finished. A sug- 
gestion by Hoffman opened the way for the purchase of the 
Stephens tract. Some few hours after bidding Hoffman fare- 
well, Harper bought the land owned by Stephens and also the 
right to operate a ferry across the river, for the Bum of 
sixty guineas ($306.60). The title was transferred in the 
presence, and under the supervision of Esquire Hamilton, 
district magistrate and a native of Ayershire, Scotland. 

Harper and Hamilton, after the purchase, became 
warm friends, the latter residing some three miles from the 
Hole. The name of Harper.'s Ferry was first heard when the 


Scottish gentleman announced to the wife of Stephens, the 
purchase of their title. Robert Harper thus "became the own- 
er of the beautiful gap and gateway thru the Blue Ridge to 
the Valley of Virginia, and was responsible for securing 
the right of way and opening the highway that from 1861 to 
1865 became famous, and made permanent the Ferry, that has 
since retained his name. 

With the departure of Stephens, Harper wrote to 
his wife and brother in Philadelphia, informing them of his 
purchase, and of his decision to remain in his newly found 
Paradise. A general investigation of the possibilities of 
water power and logical mill sites was undertaken, so that 
the grain in the surrounding country might be milled. 

Rachel Griffith, a native of Philadelphia, and 
wife of Harper, after a journey thru a roadless forest ar- 
rived at Harper.' a Ferry accompanying her brother Robert 
Griffith, a girl Barbara Klive, and three mechanics. A 
worthy costum of the neighbors, at th<at time, was to send 
to a newcomer household necessities requisite for the es- 
tablishment of a home. The friendly neighbors, having been 
in similar circumstances themselves, realized the value of 
such aid and gave generously. Robert Griffith was given 
the task of building the mill and on the first of October, 
1747, the following advertisement was posted on the trees; 



"To the farmers in Maryland and over the Blue 
Ridge in Londen County. This is to certify that 
all persons bringing grist to ray mill under the 
charge of William Griffith will "be ferried across 
the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers free of expense. 

Robert Harper 

Proprietor of the 

Harpers Ferry Mill" 

(Taken from historical data on Harpers Ferry.} 

Harper:' s aid to the settlers was prompt even from 
the beginning for a period of not more than seven months 
had elapsed between the time of his departure from Philadel- 
phia and the completion of the ferry and mill, thereby giv- 
ing to the residents of the Valley of Virginia a means of 
access to Baltimore and also the advantages of a nearby 
milling plant . 

Quoting Historical Data of Harpers' Perry: 
"The ferry — the nearest to Baltimore and the 
mill were both successful beyond his most sanguine expecta- 
tions. As proof he paid off all his indebtedness in leBs 
than two years .*' 

The following winter, 1747-48, being a hard one 
for the Harper 'b colony, required them to remain indoors, 
excluded from all outdoor activity and communications. The 
rivers were bound with ice, snow covered the trails and lay 


as a heavy blanket on the peaks. 

The rivers were still swollen when, in March, 
George Washington, George Fairfax, and three assistants 
crossed the Shenandoah to Harper's Perry, and informed the 
settlers of their intention of surveying the tract of land 
granted them by Thomas Fairfax. Harper was surprised at 
the extreme youth of Washington and Fairfax, the former be- 
ing but a trifle over sixteen years of age. Upon comple- 
tion of the survey the party undertook others farther up 
the Shenandoah near the present site of Winchester , The 
responsibility of this important position -was well placed, 
when given to the future president, for on many occasions 
the accuracy of these surveys have been proven. 

By 1750 the residents of the Valley of Virginia 
were able to send their teams loaded with flour, pork and 
other produce over the road-, built by Maryland and Virginia, 
into Baltimore City, Harper is favorite market. 

In 176 3-64 Harper's Ferry became a "fixed fact'/ 
as the General Assembly of Virginia then holding its session 
in Williamsburg granted Mr, Harper a charter, extablishing 
his ferry lay law and fixing the rate of toll across--which 
rate was never charged. 

Peter Stephens, being the first settler in the 
Hole, having come there in 1732, was also the first to op- 
erate a ferry across the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. 
His was simply a horse boat, which he crudely constructed 


with his own hands. The recompense obtained was very small, 
"because of the comparatively insignificant amount of mater- 
ial <and people transported. The establishment of a grist 
mill by Harper in (1847 required a much larger ferry, and 
which size increased with the rate of settlement in the 

The importance of Harper's Ferry grew with the 
emigration to the Valley of Virginia and it was then con- 
sidered the best route to the Atlantic. "When the revolu- 
tionary war broke out Harper's business began to decrease 
rapidly because of the haste of the farmers to reliquish 
their agricultural pursuits, and lend their support to the 
colonies. Harper remained true to his native land, firmly 
convinced with the belief that the colonies 7/ere unable to 
fight off the yoke of subjugation. His ardor soon dampened, 
however, when he paid large quarterly sums of money as tax- 
es to England. To escape from this duty he urged his wife, 
who generally took in all the receipts of the ferry, to 
bury the money. This benefited no one, for in the perfor- 
mance of some of her housework Bhe unfortunately fell from 
a ladder and died the following day without uttering a word. 
His brother Joseph and his nephew Robert Harper Jr. died 
two years previous to that date. Some short time following 
the death of his wife his esteemed friend, Lord Thomas Ham- 
ilton, slipped thru a rafter, during the construction of 
Harper's stone home in 1775, seriously injuring himself and 


resulting In his death. This house still stands, beauti- 
fully located in sight of his former ferry, and from the 
porch of which may be seen the passage of the rivers thru 
the Blue Ridge. 

On October 2, 1782 Robert Harper died leaving his 
property to his niece, Bar ah, who married John Wager Sr . 
whose descendants, two nephews and a niece resided at the 
Ferry. The niece Sarah A. Wager married Noah H. Swayne, 
judge of the United States Supreme Court, 

Mr. Harper was buried, on Camp Hill, in a tract 
of four acres that he deeded to the town for such purposes. 
His grave is appropriately marked by a monument erected by 
his great grand nephew John Wager Swayne. 

The following are extracts of the will of Robert 
Harper, October 1, 1782: 

"1- I give leave and bequeath to ray Nephew Robert 
Griffith, one Moi#iy, or half of my ferry survey- " 

"21y- I leave and bequeath to my niece Sarah Har- 
per, daughter of my Brother, Joseph Harper jointer and cabi- 
net maker late of Philadelphia, or her VieirB my "Ferry and 
Ferry House on Potowmack River, all the remainder of my 
ferry survey, not before devised, to Robert Griffith together 
with all my estate, right and title to the Maryland Shore 
of the said Ferry and also my Estate right and title to 
and for Ten Acres upon which is called Big Island up the 
Potowmack River adjoining the Ferry aforesaid 


"3rd- It ia my will in consideration of what is 
above devised and made over to my said Sarah that she, or 
her assigns shall be obliged to Ferry over at the Ferry 
above mentioned passage free every person or persons who 
shall bring with them giaest of any kind to the Mills ■ 

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which pushed its 
tracks forward to Wager's Bridge in May, 18 33 greatly re- 
duced the usefulness of the ferry acrosB the Potomac River. 
Connection was made with the short Winchester and Potomac 
road "Pec ember 1, 1834 producing an Immediate stimulus to the 
business of the road. The effect of the road thru the re- 
gion, which it passed msy be illustrated by the change in 
population of Harpers Ferry from 1,162 in 1830 to 6,105 in 
1850. The population has decreased up to the present time 
now being but approximately 1500, 



Jefferson Rock --Boli- 
var Heights, W. Va. 
with Londen Heights 
in the bac icgr o and . 
It was so called when 
Thomas Jefferson on 
one of his trips to 
the. ferry inscribed 
hi s name on it , 


Remains of the ferry 

landing on the Poto- 
mac. (W. Va..sido) 
after the establish- 
ment of the Federal 
Arseml in 1796 . 


RoTaert Harper's House 
erected in 1775 on 
Bolivar Heights, W. Va, 
Th« house is still in 
excellent condition. 


Tomb stone at Robert 
Harper's grave, Boli- 
var He i ght 3 , W . Va . , 
beailo a large elm 
which has sprung up 
since his death. 

The original site of 
John Brown's Port. 
The old engine was re- 
moved for exhibition 
purposes to World's 
Fair, Chicago and re- 
erected on the grounds 
of Storer College. 




1. History of Western Maryland, Scharf, J. Thomas. 

2. The Story of John Brown's Raid and Capture, and the Found' 
ing of Historic Harpers Ferry, John L. Schelling. 

3. History and Colony of the Ancient Domain of Virginia, 
Charles Campbell . 

4. The Chesapeake and Pot cmac Country, 01 war Martin 

5. Historical Data Concerning Harx>ers Ferry, a member of 
=i member of Harper-* s family (name unknown), 

6. The Will of Robert Harper. 

7. Picturesque Baltimore and Ohio, J. G. Pangborn. 
8. -History of west Virginia, Virgil A. Lewis. 

9. ;veat Virginia, Morris P. Shawkey . 

The writer wishes particularly to acknowledge 
his indebtedness to Henry T. McDonald, President of storer 
College, for his generosity in giving information on this 
subject , 

J. J. V.