Clark’s Ferry Tavern
The Clark’s Ferry Tavern in Duncannon, Pennsylvania is one of the most important and historic structures remaining in Perry County. From 1788 until 1828 it served as “the gateway to the Juniata Valley” and a vital commercial and transportation route westward.
The Clark’s Ferry was established in 1788 by John Clark a native of Scotland. Clark also built the front portion of the stone tavern from 1789-1790. The land on which the tavern sits is a small portion of the initial 215 acre land grant from John and Thomas Penn to Samuel Goudy in 1768. John and his eldest son Daniel ran the tavern and ferry from 1790-1800 when they both died. At this point ownership passed to John’s younger son and Daniel’s brother, Robert Clark, who added the larger stone addition between 1800 and 1810.
Robert Clark was a surveyor by trade, but after inheriting the ferry and tavern became one of the wealthier entrepreneurs in what was at that time Rye Township, Cumberland County. In addition to the ferry and tavern, Robert owned large tracts of land, amounting to well over 1200 acres, and another tavern on the Dauphin County side of the Susquehanna River, as well as farms, saw and gristmills and a distillery. In 1808 he partnered with numerous tavern owners to establish the Juniata Mail Stage, which ran from Harrisburg to Alexandria (Huntingdon County), once a week. Robert would later start and serve as share-holder in numerous other stage-lines throughout Cumberland and later Perry County
In its heyday, from 1808-1828, legend says it was “not uncommon to see fifteen or twenty of these large wagons [Conestogas] drawn by six or eight horses each . . . waiting their turn for the ferryboats.” Additionally, as the roadways were improved, wealthier travelers would frequent the tavern by both stage and carriage and Robert Clark would provide them with food, drink and lodging. By the middle 1820s, however, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had determined that a bridge across the Susquehanna River was needed, not only for the large amount of travelers along the Northern Turnpike, but also to accommodate a crossing for boats along the Pennsylvania Canal. As such, Robert Clark became a victim of his family’s own success and foresight.
In 1828 the first wooden “Clark’s Ferry” covered bridge was completed, and it made Clark’s ferry service almost immediately obsolete. Clark would “rent out” his properties for the remainder of his life, but never regained the financial success he had for the first three decades of the nineteenth century. He relocated to Saville Township in 1836 where he died in 1855. His widow Margaretta (Bovard) Clark remarried wealthy stage-line operator Zachariah Rice of Landisburg, and they rented out the Clark’s Tavern property until 1869 when it was sold.
During the Civil War the tavern was known as the Topley Hotel and leased and run by Samuel Topley and it was here that Co. B of the Pennsylvania Bucktails drilled and mustered before embarking for Harrisburg’s Camp Curtin and the front lines. The property passed through numerous owners and uses throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and twentieth century, notable among them the David and Enos Smith family, who owned the building for almost a century. During this time it was used as a dairy, butchershop, and single-family apartments before being sold in the mid-1970s.
The building was in a desperate state when it was purchased by the Borough of Duncannon in 2012, who saved this valuable piece of Perry County history from the wrecking ball. Ownership was ceded to the Historical Society of Perry County in 2015, who are presently in the process of stabilizing, fundraising and restoring the tavern, both ensuring its long-term preservation and creating a functional, community-centered destination for Duncannon and the larger Perry County community.
To that end, the Historical Society of Perry County and the Friends of Clark’s Ferry Tavern need your help. If you are interested in volunteering, donating or would simply like more information on the tavern’s history or restoration, please contact the Historical Society of Perry County.