Fort Hunter showcases centuries along the Susquehanna
Fort Hunter Mansion and Park is a historic riverfront center along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg. But its name is misleading.
You won’t find a fort. It existed in colonial times, but no longer. You will find a mansion and a park, but also a a lot more than that. This 40-acre park honors millennia of river traffic and shoreline life. It includes more than 18 historic sites, including a tavern, barn and federal-style mansion — the central attraction — perched on a bluff above the Susquehanna River.
Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, owned by Dauphin County, is located at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and Fishing Creek, where the waterways served as transportation hubs long before roads were built. The 40-acre main property sits on the east side of the riverfront in Harrisburg, along both sides of Front Street. Front Street was cut first by foot and then by hoof as humans traversed the Susquehanna shoreline. Today, Front Street is still a scenic river road from Fort Hunter into the city, lined with riverfront mansions, islands and historic bridges.
From prehistoric Native American traders to families packed into Studebakers, this site has been part of a major thoroughfare for more than 9,000 years.
“This was the only route north and west before highways were built,” said park manager Julia Hair.
The latest addition to the park, the 1930s Fort Hunter Service Station and Tourist Camp, testifies to this continuing theme. The Service Station and Tourist Camp were family-run until the 1960s, with a diner, petting zoo and gas station.
“No one famous lived here, but the buildings are noteworthy,” Hair said. “I really like that only two families lived in the mansion and on the property as we know it today. The second family updated the mansion with electric and plumbing but that’s it. It remains untouched.”
One of the first nonnative settlers of the site was Samuel Hunter, who in the early 1720s ran grist and saw mills that became known as Hunter’s Mills. The name stuck when the British built a nearby fort in the 1750s as the French and Indian War became imminent. After the war, Fort Hunter was left to decay.
Eleven years of excavations by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have turned up artifacts such as animal bones, ammunition and pottery shards, but not the fort’s exact location, Hair said.
“It was a small fort near where Fishing Creek meets the river,” she said. “Looking up Fishing Creek, you can see all the way to Dauphin [borough]. They looked everywhere; they think the fort might be under the house.” The public can watch continuing excavations this fall.
The name Fort Hunter stayed with the land when Archibald McAllister, a Revolutionary War captain, established his family farm here on what was 900 acres in 1786. Their first home was little more than a cabin. In 1814, McAllister expanded the cabin into a large home, now referred to as the Fort Hunter Mansion, crafted with stone from local quarries.
As the mansion took shape, so did McAllister’s estate, comprised of several businesses frequented by locals and transients alike. Travelers stopped at the farm to shoe their horses, share the day’s news over a mug of grog and get a good night’s sleep at his inn, The Practical Farmer. Locals gathered to discuss farming practices and politics.
McAllister also ran mills and a well-respected distillery. His products were transported on the Susquehanna River and the Pennsylvania Canal, which opened in 1834 and traversed McAllister’s land. The tavern, stable, barn and canal remain on the property today.
Approximately 20 enslaved people labored to make the farm the successful enterprise that the McAllisters enjoyed. Very little is known about them. However, a newspaper article announced McAllister’s intent to sell the last four people who were enslaved there — and reported the subsequent escape of a woman named Sall Crage (Craig). No one knows what happened to Sall, but she may have found help in Harrisburg; the town was an important stop on the Underground Railroad for escapees making their way to Canada. A small cemetery for the Craig family was located on the McAllister land, which is now an adjacent property only a 15-minute walk away.
In 1870, a prominent Harrisburg citizen, Daniel Dick Boas, purchased Fort Hunter as a summer home. The mansion then underwent its third and last renovation, which included a rear addition and electric service. Boas’ daughter Helen and her husband, John Reily, inherited the property and began a dairy farm.
The Reilys had no children and willed the property to nine nieces and nephews. One of the heirs, Margaret Wister Meigs, recognized the cultural importance of the land she held with her siblings and cousins. Meigs wanted to preserve Fort Hunter as Harrisburg’s suburbs began spreading up Front Street as early as the 1930s. She began to buy out her relatives and, in 1956, established the Fort Hunter Museum Foundation. Meigs and her family founded the Friends of Fort Hunter, a volunteer organization that exists today.
The Fort Hunter Mansion is maintained much like a home, but with curated exhibits from the daily life of the families who lived there, including clothing, diaries and archaeological finds, such as Native American artifacts and the relics from the fort. At 4,300 square feet, the mansion is an unusually large example of a Pennsylvania home dating to the early 1800s.
The natural landscape is simultaneously historic and stunning. Sycamore trees, some 300 years old, grace the property behind the mansion on Fishing Creek near an icehouse that dates to the 1800s. One of five Susquehanna River water gaps — all of which are National Natural Landmarks — is upstream to the northwest; to the south, the famous Rockville Bridge, an engineering wonder when it opened in 1902, spans the river. It is the longest stone-arch railroad bridge in the world.
A one-mile walking trail winds around 18 historic sites, both natural and built. A map is available from the park office or its website. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission provides a launch area for canoes, kayaks and small motorized boats.
School children visit the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park to learn stories of American lives and livelihoods. They eat lunch under a pavilion near the Pennsylvania Canal, which opened in 1834, and play on a modern playground within sight of the circa 1876 Centennial Barn where Meig’s ancestors milked cows. Weddings are held at the Heckton Church, which was built in 1886 and moved to the Fort Hunter riverside site in 2009.
Adults on a day trip or a reprieve from business in Harrisburg will appreciate the riverine setting for its bucolic splendor and architecture. On weekends, visitors can enjoy musical and family events, including a Jazz and Wine Festival in the autumn. During winter holidays, the mansion and grounds are decorated to reflect the season.
Guided tours of the mansion are available from May 1–Dec. 23. For information, call 717-599-5791 or visit forthunter.org.
Near Fort Hunter Mansion & Park
If you’d like to explore more outdoor opportunities near Fort Hunter and Harrisburg, try these:
- Fort Hunter Conservancy: A 153 acre-wooded property once part of the original Fort Hunter estate with a short trail system.
- Wildwood Park: The 210-acre park has six miles of trails, a nature center and a 90-acre lake with wetlands and wildlife.
- Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area: The 1,025-acre preserve straddles Blue Mountain and showcases large trees of numerous species, which are homes for deep forest birds, especially warblers. In the summer and fall, the old field is filled with blooming wildflowers. In late July and early August, the flowers attract field birds and many varieties of butterflies.