Robert Harper House
Built between 1775 and 1782, the Robert Harper House is the oldest surviving structure in the Lower Town of Harpers Ferry. It bears the name of Robert Harper, who established the town of Harpers Ferry and died before the house was completed. After Harper's death in 1782, the property was divided between his niece, Sarah Harper Wager, and his wife's relative, Robert Griffith. In 1832, a wedding took place at the house between Sarah's daughter, Sarah Ann, and Noah H. Swayne, who would later be one of Abraham Lincoln's Supreme Court Justices. The house remained it the Swayne family for generations. Today, the Robert Harper House is now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Harpers Ferry Historical District.
Backstory and Context
In 1775, Harper began building a stone structure to serve as his home and tavern on a hilltop overlooking the Lower Town. Harper operated a successful ferry business on the Potomac and a sawmill on the Shenandoah. These early industries laid the foundation for larger operations in the nineteenth century, including factories, a federal armory, a railroad, a canal system, and a number of mills on Virginius Island. After Harper's death in 1782, the property was divided between his niece, Sarah Harper Wager, and his wife's relative, Robert Griffith. In 1832, a wedding took place at the house between Sarah's daughter, Sarah Ann, and Noah H. Swayne, who would later be one of Abraham Lincoln's Supreme Court Justices. The house remained it the Swayne family for generations.2
Harpers Ferry prospered until the Civil War, which devastated the local economy and dispersed its population. Yet events of the Civil War, particularly John Brown's raid, solidified the town's historical significance. Harpers Ferry rebuilt itself as a tourist destination with convenient connections on the B&O Railroad and C&O Canal.3
By the twentieth century, Harpers Ferry had been flooded numerous times and fell into disrepair. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was established in 1944. When conducting inventory of local monuments, the National Park Service marked the Harper House as "1A," acknowledging it as the "first" structure in the park. The Harper House was also the Park's first major restoration effort, done in coordination with the Shenandoah-Potomac Garden Club. Women's clubs, motivated by postwar patriotism, advocated for the restoration of places important to America's past. Both the National Park Service and the Garden Club recognized the Harper House's dire physical conditions. Their collaboration is an example of federal and local organizations working together to save historic places. The Harper House, restored to the 1850s appearance, opened to the public in 1965 and was a stop on the Garden Club's Historic House and Garden Tour. A living history program was added in the 1970s. Today, the Harper House remains a destination for visitors to Harpers Ferry.4
2. Moyer and Shackel, The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, 1-10.
3. Moyer and Shackel, The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, 17-18.
4. Moyer and Shackel, The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, 71-83; Nasby, Harpers Ferry, 48.
Moyer, Teresa S. and Paul A. Shackel. The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: A Devil, Two Rivers, and a Dream. Roman Altamira Press, 2008.
Nasby, Dolly. Harpers Ferry: Then and Now. Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
National Park Service. "Harpers Ferry Historic District." National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. Prepared by Harpers Ferry Planning Commission. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1979. http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/nr/pdf/jefferson/79002584.pdf
National Park Service. "Robert Harper." Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Accessed September 2017. https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/robert-harper.htm