Fort Hunter Park commands a magnificent view of the Susquehanna River and Blue Mountains beyond. It was originally settled in 1725 by Benjamin Chambers, who later founded Chambersburg. Samuel Hunter, Chamber’s brother-in-law, inherited the well-favored property which included grist and saw mills. The bustling settlement thus became known as Hunter’s Mill.
Faced with the mounting threat of the French and Indian War, the British built a series of small forts from Harris Ferry (Harrisburg) to Fort Augusta in Sunbury. Among these was Fort Hunter, ideally situated at a bend in the river, thereby serving as an alarm station and supply depot. The Fort was a 10′ by 14′ log blockhouse surrounded by a stockade and manned by volunteer soldiers, mostly farmers’ sons.
In 1763, following the defeat of the Indian Nations, the Fort was left to decay. It was in 1787 that Captain Archibald McAllister, a dashing young officer who had served directly under General George Washington in the Revolutionary Army, bought the land. This holding included the abandoned fort, Hunter’s mill, and farm.
Under his spirited leadership, McAllister’s farm grew into a self-sufficient frontier village with grist and saw mills, country store, blacksmith shop, school, artisan’s shops, a fine tavern and a most successful distillery. River landings permitted barges and other craft to anchor and the 1834 official opening of the Pennsylvania Canal encouraged a healthy trade.
From 1786-1831 over twenty enslaved people were residents of Fort Hunter. Labor of enslaved people ran the Mansion. African-American women made the soap, ironed the clothes, cooked and cleaned the house, men worked in farming and perhaps more; they might have worked in the Tavern and helped in the distillery. Check out information on Fort Hunter’s African American Cemetery at fhcemetery.blogspot.com
Daniel Dick Boas, a prominent Harrisburg citizen, bought the property in 1870 and later willed it to his daughter Helen, and son-in-law, John W. Reily. For half a century the Reily dairy farm, graced with strutting peacocks and grazing sheep, was a familiar landmark and social center for Harrisburg.
As the Reilys had no children, they left the property to their nine nieces and nephews. One niece, Margaret Wister Meigs, of Washington, D.C. recognized the historical significance of the site. She had the foresight to buy the remaining shares and to establish the Fort Hunter Museum.
In 1956, Mrs. Meigs and her family set up the Fort Hunter Foundation and organized the Friends of Fort Hunter. With their volunteer membership, they initiated a restoration and education program. Presently, owned by the County of Dauphin and Board of Trustees for Fort Hunter, Fort Hunter Park provides beautiful recreational facilities embracing the Mansion and estate-style grounds.
Want to learn more? Pick up your copy of Carl Dickson’s book, “Fort Hunter: A Guide,” available in the Museum Shop. It describes the history of the Mansion and the many other buildings in Fort Hunter Park. View photos of the Mansion and Park, read about the historic families that once called the Mansion their home, and how this Victorian estate became a treasured museum and recreational park.
Thinking of taking a walk around Fort Hunter Park? Print the Walking Tour before you go. You’ll learn more about this 19th century estate and all of the buildings that turned it into a bustling community.