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THE HISTORY AUD OPERATION
OF THE FERRY FORMERLY AT HARPER ts FERRY
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.
THE HISTORY AND OPERATION' OF THE FERRY FORMERLY AT HARPER? 3
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.
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
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
J. J. V.