With the renewed interest in the possible reopening of the Historic Hilltop House in Harpers Ferry, I thought it would be a good time to look back to how the old hotel actually came into being.
The hotel first opened in 1888, built by African Americans Thomas S. Lovett and his wife, Lavonia, a couple with bigger-than-life dreams.
The Lovetts had previously lived at the Brackett House and took boarding guests who were overflow from the boarding house operated at the nearby Lockwood House. That experience got them ready for a much bigger opportunity — running their own hotel.
It has been reported that while standing on the opposite side of the river and observing the rock where Thomas Jefferson declared “that the view was worth a voyage across the Atlantic” Mr. Lovett proclaimed “where the martyrdom of John Brown took place, I will build my hotel.”
The original hotel operated in a two-story wooden structure. A three-story annex wing was added before 1900. Wide porches allowed guests to enjoy the scenic overlook above the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. For its entire existence, the hotel provided a tranquil getaway from the hubbub of the nearby cities.
At the Hilltop House, the rich and famous walked the same narrow hallways as the not-so-rich and not-so-famous. Guests’ names from the hotel registry in its time included Pearl S. Buck, Carl Sandburg, Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain, to drop a few names.
On Oct. 19, 1915, the Spirit of Jefferson reported that President Woodrow Wilson registered for lunch at the Hilltop House as “Woodrow Wilson and party of 3” which included his fiancé and his cousins, Lucy and Mary Smith.
The hotel building burned twice, in 1912 and then again seven years later. The fire in 1919 burned the structure to the ground. With each setback, the Lovetts pushed forward to reopen the popular inn.
The Lovetts supported nearby Storer College both in providing for a place visitors to the school could stay, and also in hiring Storer College students as employees of the hotel. That helped the students pay their school fees and also allowed each student to establish a work resume. The Lovetts also set aside rooms at the hotel for employees who needed to work late or had to be on the clock in the early hours of the next morning.
According to a report filed about the hotel by A. Mercer Daniel, lawyer and librarian (date unknown), the American Automobile Association and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad both recommended the hotel to its clients.
During the hotel’s heyday, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad operated an amusement park called Island Park located on Byrnes Island in the Potomac River directly below the hotel and across a short walk bridge. The park was open for about 30 years — closing around 1909 — and contained a steam-driven merry-go-round, a ferris wheel, a dance pavilion, boat rentals, picnic areas and a beach. The town bandstand (gazebo) located in the upper town today on Washington Street had formerly been located on Island Park.
The Lovetts were proprietors of the hotel for 38 years. William Lovett died in 1926.
In more recent times, travelers visiting Harpers Ferry have expressed frequently that they made an annual visits to the Hilltop House to celebrate their wedding anniversary, birthday parties, or other family functions. Seven to 800 people reserved tables at the hotel’s annual Easter feast. People came from miles around to stay at the 100- year old historic hotel.
In its early years, the Hilltop House was said to be “as solid as the rock of Gibraltar.” Sadly as the building was more and more neglected, that former description is certainly in doubt. In its last years of being open, questions arose as to whether eating on the overhang high above the Potomac River was indeed safe.
Recent stories from hotel guests included complaints that in the summer, when guests tried to open windows, they would fall out of their tracks. The air conditioning failed to function. In the winter, guests complained that there was often no hot water. The hotel was not handicapped accessible.
The hotel has been closed since 2008. A developer has drawn up plans to rebuild the Hilltop House Hotel as an upscale spa and resort. The company provided renderings in its proposal to make the Hilltop House Hotel look like earlier versions of the building. Then the economy went sour. The project has been on hold.
A large chunk of the front of the hotel collapsed in March 2010. The once grand property is now encircled by high fencing to keep onlookers at a distance.
Whether the hotel is ever reopened in the future — a topic still currently under consideration — it was certainly a fine hotel in its day. And it stands on one of the most picturesque spots in the entire region.
— Bob O’Connor writes
from Harpers Ferry