Harper’s Ferry is a city rich in history, much of which is interpreted right on the surface of the town’s bustling tourist district. However, there are a few interesting little pieces of history that aren’t interpreted in plain view of the casual tourist, and as you well know, those are some of my favorite mysteries.
Hopefully, my previous post and the photos therein have whetted your curiosity as to the origins of this building, as the original encounter drove me to vigorously research the history. Although the NPS didn’t take the time to interpret the building itself on site, I did find one tiny, tantalizing historic photo on an interpretive sign near Lock 33 of this building in what must’ve been its heyday.
This only drove me to search harder, though all these years, I was never able to find out anything more about this building other than that tiny photo on the interpretive sign. My first clue that this search may be a bit easier this time around was when I came across this photo right off the bat:
When I first started my search anew on Google, I came across modern photos of this building, which reported this structure as Lockhouse 33. Being that the house sits directly across from the now-dry C&O canal and Lock 33, that seemed to make perfect sense. It was also reported that a flood had destroyed the wooden floors and roof, leaving the house a shell.
To my surprise, this structure had become so well-known in the time between my original visit and now that even Google Maps has a view of the house from the inside.
Admittedly a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t guessed that this structure was the Lock 33 lockhouse, I continued my search for more information until I finally found a reputable source for my information–and interestingly, this source’s version of what this building actually is differs quite a bit from the rumors.
Finally, after wading through pages of photos and supposition, I found three solid sources upon which to base the history of the Stone House. The house actually stood partially on C&O Canal land, so after making an agreement with the canal company, a man by the name of James Eglin began blasting away at the bedrock of Maryland Heights that still stands directly behind the house. Eglin built the house starting in the winter of 1840 and completed it before spring in 1841.
Now, Eglin was a businessman in Harper’s Ferry, but unfortunately, despite his business savvy, he was never able to obtain the title for the house. It seems that Eglin rented the house out after it was built, but come Civil War time, the Union Army tossed out Eglin’s tenant and turned over the house to the lockkeeper at Lock 33, a gent by the name of John H. Reed.
John Reed reportedly operated a store out of the stone house as well as a some sort of bar. Reed occupied the property until 1889, when, at the time of his death, the property passed to his son, Winfield S. Reed. Incidentally, there was also a massive flood on the river in 1889, which reportedly caused considerable damage to the canal, boats, and structures that were built near the canal.
Now, Winfield Reed wasn’t exactly–shall we say–a responsible young man. Turns out, he was indebted to a man by the name of Albertus Spencer for quite a pretty penny, and in 1893, Spencer won the house and another property lot after a lawsuit against Reed. Spencer, apparently without many bright ideas of his own, continued to operate a store and drinking-type establishment out of the stone house, which had quickly earned itself quite the reputation–so much so that a petition forced the place to shut down just before Prohibition took effect in the second decade of the 1900s. The petition apparently stemmed from not just the reputation of the drinking house, but from a fight that occurred earlier in the year in front of the house that resulted in several people losing their lives.
With Prohibition in effect, Spencer built a two-story wooden frame house next to the stone house and moved his store to the new structure. In the stone house itself, he opened a museum that featured information about the infamous John Brown. During this time, Spencer conveyed the stone house to his wife, Mary Spencer, and upon her death in 1923, the house passed on to her sister, Elizabeth A. Stockman. Stockman lived in the second story of the stone house, continuing to operate the museum on the first floor from 1924-1927. In 1927, Elizabeth Stockman moved, taking the museum and its artifacts with her and leaving the stone house to her son, Edgar Spencer Weaver. Weaver lived in the house from 1927-1930, when he and his family moved to a new house on a different lot.
The years 1930-1933 are a bit of a question mark in the history of the stone house, but in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, Edgar Spencer Weaver’s widow, Hester Weaver, reportedly re-opened the two-story frame building next to the stone house as the bar that would become infamous in Harper’s Ferry and an entity that the stone house is still mistaken as today: The Salty Dog Tavern. Though the bar was closed in the early 1940s, the area around the stone house was once again know for its bad reputation and high concentration of drunks.
From 1947-1953, a man named Patrick O’Brien owned the house and used it as a rental property. In 1953, he sold the house to Richard and Marie Torres for $5,000. What the Torreses did with the place, I’m not quite sure, but it’s pretty clear they didn’t do much in the way of caring for the house. A fire in 1960 reportedly damaged the structure considerably, and by the time the National Park Service was taking over control of Maryland Heights in 1963, my sources report that the internal structure of the stone house was on the verge of collapse.
Yet another fire several years after the first was apparently enough to do-in the interior of the house, and all that remained standing is what we see today–a stone shell of a home.
Though if you take a look at the previous post, you’ll discover what I consider to be a bit of a mystery.
Sure, if you look closely at the interior of the house, you might be able to see a bit of charring, especially on the walls of the second story.
But what about the wooden windowsills and doorframes that remain intact in the house? Are those original? Were they somehow spared from the fire? Did the park service decide to replace them for scenic purposes? That is one question I have that I may never answer.
The above link contains a photo of the interpretive sign that bore the tiny black-and-white photo that gave me my first glimpse of the James Elgin house in its historic context.