Ferry Hill

Bird's-eye view of Ferry Hill Plantation
Bird's-eye view of Ferry Hill Plantation

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center


Crossroads of Opportunity

Long before a bridge stretched across the Potomac River, a flatbed ferry operated here moving goods and people. Thomas Van Swearingen started a ferry in this location in 1765, providing a vital crossing along the Great Wagon Road that stretched from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

John Blackford purchased rights to the ferry in 1813 when he married wealthy Sarah Van Swearingen. Blackford generated income transporting his and others’ goods north and south for trade. With his new found fortune, he built a plantation at Ferry Hill.

In 1835, the C&O Canal reached this location, expanding the east-west network of trade by boat. At this busy water crossing, the ferry and Canal Lock 38 gave rise to a new community. Bridgeport offered an inn, feed shop, and other goods and services for travelers on the ferry and canal.

Blackford’s lucrative ferry operations largely depended on enslaved labor from its start. Edmund was the enslaved “foreman of the ferry,” operating it alone for months on end. The work was grueling and the environment harsh. According to Blackford’s journal, Edmund reported suffering from constant exposure to river water—and even “the falling off of the flesh.”


Seeking Freedom

Pathways to freedom followed transportation routes like the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, built between 1828 and 1850, was a route for individuals seeking freedom from slavery. As they fled inhumane working and living conditions, many of them passed through this region on their way to self-emancipation across state and sometimes international borders.

Wherever there were enslaved African Americans, there were people eager to escape. Freedom was not an abstract concept for enslaved people living along the Potomac River. Enslaved African Americans lived and worked side-by-side with free white and Black people. By 1830, about 4% of the population in Washington County were free African Americans and 12% of the population was enslaved.

Daphney’s Story of Courage

One of many to attempt an escape through this region was Daphney, a woman enslaved by John Blackford at nearby Ferry Hill Plantation. She made two attempts to freedom in the 1830s, suffering a miscarriage of twins in between. Both her attempts were unsuccessful. Daphney may have been driven by fear over Blackford’s declining health, since upon his death her future would be uncertain. Less than a year after Blackford’s death, Daphney was sold away from her family to Philip J. Fontane in Key West, Florida.


A Mid-Atlantic Plantation

The 700-acre Ferry Hill Plantation, developed here in the mid-1800s, was a thriving agricultural business. Unlike plantations in the Deep South, Ferry Hill had multiple streams of revenue and grew a variety of crops. All of these endeavors relied on enslaved African Americans who worked side-by-side with free white and Black laborers. Workers were not treated equally; white workers were corrected verbally, while enslaved workers were "corrected" with a whip.

The plantation was connected economically and socially with the larger community. The people enslaved at Ferry Hill had relationships that extended beyond the plantation and connected them with the region's broader Black community - free and enslaved. At night, enslaved people occasionally visited friends and family nearby, and enslaved workers at Ferry Hill occasionally received visits from family members.

Sundays were typically a day of rest for free and enslaved people at Ferry Hill. The Blackford family were members at the Episcopal Church, and attended services at multiple denominations in the area. The enslaved workers were occasionally allowed to attend services with a local African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Congregation.


The People of Ferry Hill

Much of what is known about Ferry Hill Plantation comes directly from historic records. John Blackford, his son Franklin Blackford, and his daughter's adopted son Henry Kyd Douglas, kept detailed diaries, chronicling their life and time on the plantation. However, there are no records from the people enslaved at Ferry Hill.

What is known about the people enslaved at Ferry Hill comes mostly from their enslavers. John Blackford wrote about his own harsh treatment. At the time of Blackford's death in 1839 he enslaved 18 people - 5 men, 4 women, and 9 children. Some of the names of the people enslaved are only known because they appear on inventory of property to be auctioned off.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Robert Douglas and his wife Helena Blackford owned Ferry Hill Plantation; they enslaved 2 men, 5 women, and 3 children, the names of which are not recorded. While the story of Blackford and his descendants is known, the fate of the people enslaved at Ferry Hill is unknown.

Known enslaved residents of Ferry Hill (1816-1864):

Adults Children
John Lewis Caroline
Charlotte Mary
Edmund (Ned) Kate
Julius (Jupe) David
Daphney George
Murphy Ann
Will John
Enoch Warren
Hannah Danny
Isaiah Jinny
Moll 3 unnamed children
7 unnamed adults
Photo of Ferry Hill in present day
Ferry Hill has stood on the Potomac River since the early 19th century.

NPS Photo

Modern History

The property passed on to Nannie Cowen, a daughter of John and Helena, who, with her husband, ran a pig farm from 1914 through 1928. Times were hard, but the Beckenbaughs continued to struggle on. In 1941, the family turned Ferry Hill into a restaurant, which it remained until 1974, despite being sold to a restaurant employee.

The link with John Blackford was severed in 1951 when the house was sold to Frederick Morrison. It provided a perfect location for a restaurant. Many students from Shepherd College recall enjoying an evening of dining and dancing at Ferry Hill. It was during this period that extensive changes were made to the house. The imposing columns facing the river were added. The wall separating the kitchen from the dining room and the servant's staircase were removed. An addition was added to the back of the main house and many of the out buildings were torn down.

In 1973, the house was sold to the National Park Service. Because of its location along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, it served as the headquarters of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park from 1979 until 2001.



From Towpath

Near mile 72.80 by Lock 38
Take Ferry Hill Trail from Towpath to Ferry Hill

Address for Parking

16500 Sharpsburg Pike
Sharpsburg, MD 21782

Mailing Address

C&O Canal NHP Headquarters
142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795



Last updated: March 14, 2024

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795



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