HARRIS, ROBERT, son of the founder, John Harris, and of Mary Read, daughter of Adam Read, Esq., of Hanover, was born in Harris’ Ferry on the 5th of September, 1768. He was brought up as a farmer, and resided in the early part of his life in the log and frame building on Paxtang street, now used as a public school. His farm extended from the dwelling-house down the river to about the present location of Hanna street, and thence out over the bluff, including the ground occupied by the Catholic cemetery, containing about one hundred acres.
By the death of his father, in 1791, much of the business affairs of the family was early intrusted to him. He was possessed of considerable public spirit, aiding in the establishment of various enterprises, including the bridge over the Susquehanna, the Harrisburg Bank, and the Harrisburg and Middletown turnpike road, in the first two of which he was a director and perhaps also in the last. Mr. Harris was appointed to various public trusts. He was one of the State commissioners to survey and lay off a route for the turnpike from Chambersburg to Pittsburgh, also for improving the Susquehanna, in the course of which the commissioner descended the river below McCall’s ferry. When the Assembly of the State decide3d to remove the seat of government to Harrisburg, Mr. Harris was selected as one of the commissioners for fixing the location of the capitol buildings preparatory to the removal.
During the mill-dam troubles, in 1795, Mr. Harris was one of the party of prominent citizens who finally tore down the Landis dam, the side of which was in the lower part of the city, and to which was attributed much of the sickness then prevailing here. He was one of the first to rush into the water, and it was said that he was then laboring under an ague chill, but never afterwards had return of it.
During the war of 1812-14, Mr. Harris was appointed paymaster of the troops which marched to Baltimore, and acted as such at York, where the soldiers were discharged. He was elected to Congress and took his seat in 1823, and by a re-election served therein until the 4th of March, 1827. On one of the occasions he brought home with him a picture, made before the days of daguerreotyping, of the celebrated John Randolph, of Virginia, representing him on the floor of the House of Representatives enveloped in a large coat, extending his long, lanky arms and his bony finger as he pointed it at Henry Clay and others in the course of his impassioned and sarcastic harangue.
Mr. Harris served in Congress during the Presidency of John Quincy Adams, and of course knew him. When General Taylor, as President, was in Harrisburg, Mr. Harris was appointed to deliver the address of welcome on the part of the citizens. During the subsequent intercourse with General Taylor he observed to him that he had dined with all of the preceding Presidents. He was married in Philadelphia in the spring of 1791, during the Presidency of General Washington, and dined at his table, and there or elsewhere with Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and probably Mr. Monroe. He was intimately acquainted with General Harrison when a lieutenant in the army, had entertained him at his house in Harrisburg, and was invited to dine with him during his brief term as President. He was on friendly terms with John C. Calhoun, and was well acquainted with General Jackson.
After the State capital was removed to Harrisburg, the residence of Mr. Harris, who had in 1805 purchased the Harris mansion from his brother David, and from that period occupied it, was the center of attraction at the seat of government. He entertained many of the prominent men of the State and the Legislature. At his house might have been seen Governor Findlay, Samuel D. Ingram, Thomas Sergeant, William J. Dunne, Governor Wolf, and various other persons of distinction, including Isaac Weaver, of Greene county, speaker of the Senate from 1817 to 1821, a gentleman of marked presence, and who, Mr. Harris said, more resembled General Washington than any other man he had ever seen. During the Presidency of General Washington, Mr. Harris, then a young man, accompanied the party on board the Clermont, the steamboat of John Fitch, when that vessel made its trial trip on the Delaware.
The first prothonotary of Dauphin county was Alexander Graydon, and the first register Andrew Forrest, both sent from Philadelphia by Governor Mifflin, with whom they had served as fellow officers in the war of the Revolution. Governor McKean for some reason refused to reappoint Mr. Forrest, and tendered the appointment to Mr. Harris. He, however, recommended the retention of Mr. Forrest, but Governor McKean informed him that if he did not accept the office he would appoint some one else. He accordingly accepted it, but, it is said, divided the fees with Mr. Forrest for some time, and perhaps until his death.
Until the close of his long life Mr. Harris was quite active in body and mind. He died at Harrisburg September 3, 1851, being within two days of fourscore and three years of age. His remains repose in the beautiful cemetery now within the bounds of our city by the Susquehanna. His warm and life-long friend, Rev. William R. DeWitt, D.D., delivered the funeral discourse, which we recollect well of hearing, in which he paid a most glowing tribute to the memory of Robert Harris. He died not unwillingly in the faith and hope of a Christian, and in the respect and kind regard of his fellow-citizens.
Mr. Harris married in Philadelphia, May 12, 1791, Elizabeth Ewing, daughter of the Rev. John Ewing, D.D., provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Harris was born in Philadelphia December 2, 1772; died at Harrisburg April 27, 1835, and is there buried.