The subject of this sketch needs no introduction to the older generation of Rock Island County, the larger enterprises of which he was intimately associated with throughout the many years of his residence here.
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Benjamin Harper was born February 12, 1817, in the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and died April 3, 1887, in the City of Rock Island, Illinois.
When about fourteen years of age his parents removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served his apprenticeship to the wagon-maker’s trade, upon completion of which, that spirit of bold initiative and energy which characterized his whole after life, asserted itself in a determination to launch out upon an independent business career. The story of his start, and his rapid conquest of fortune, affords an interesting contrast to the conditions of success demanded by our modern youth.
Young Benjamin’s father was a small farmer, on what was then the Western frontier. Naturally, he possessed scant means that he could afford to venture as a capital stake for his young son, but the boy needed only half a chance, as the event will show. Mr. Harper happened to have in his cellar a considerable stock of cider. This he gave to Benjamin, telling him to dispose of it as he pleased. Young Harper loaded the cider on to a flat-boat, floated it down the Ohio River to St. Louis, and sold it. With the money this gained he purchased a stock of general merchandise, and pushing North to Piqua, Ohio, there he set up in business, continuing prosperously until the year 1838, when he removed his stock to Tully, Lewis County, near Canton, Missouri, where he added the pork packing business to his other lines. His wealth grew rapidly during the succeeding twelve years, at the expiration of which time, in the year 1850, he closed out his business in Tully, and journeyed Westward to the City that was to be his home during the rest of his life-Rock Island, Illinois.
By this time Mr. Harper had accumulated what was in very fact, in those days, a large fortune-seventy-five thousand dollars. With this capital he established a large packing business in Rock Island, and prosecuted it with such energy and success, that five years later, he became sole owner of the Rock Island Gas Company, in the control of which he continued for a period of twenty years.
With increasing wealth Mr. Harper’s field of enterprise widened. He purchased, in 1860, the Island City Hotel, which occupied the present site of the Harper House. Having reconstructed the building, he named it the Rodman House.
The new building burned’ down before it was completed, inflicting a heavy loss upon Mr. Harper, but, with characteristic courage and energy, he at once began again, and the structure that he erected still stands, the well known Harper House of Rock Island. It was for many years the best hotel in all the West, and it is today in the front rank of Western hostelries – a splendid monument to the local patriotism and generous enter-prise of its projector.
The opening of the famous Inn marked an epoch in the history of the City, and the citizens, grateful for the distinguished public service, presented Mr. Harper with a six hundred dollar piano, and a silver pitcher costing two hundred dollars. The house was brilliantly opened on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1871.
Harper Theatre was erected in the year 1878, and to its business Mr. Harpe gave his personal attention for a number of years.
Mr. Harper built more dwelling houses in Rock Island during his life than any other man-one of the highest and most public-spirited forms of service that a wealthy man can render to his city-and to his initiative in this field is largely due the rapid growth of the City’s population. He built successfully a number of residences for his own occupancy, the last of these being the stately mansion at the head of Eighteenth Street, where he passed the closing years of his prolonged, active and useful life.
Mr. Harper’s friends who survive him, bear testimony to his generous public spirit. The Harper House alone cost him more than a hundred thousand dollars; and it has benefited the business interests of the City to the extent of many times that much. Hundreds of thousands of dollars beside were spent by him in the public and quasi-public improvement. No man has done more than he to make Rock Island the famed and prosperous City that it is.
In politics, Mr. Harper was a staunch Republican. He served with honor as Mayor of Rock Island, to which office he was twice elected. He was a charter member of Rock Island Lodge, Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons.
Always alert in promoting new industries for the public welfare, he enjoyed the confidence and grateful regard of his fellow citizens. In his domestic life he was quiet, and of simple tastes, and lovingly devoted to his family.
Mr. Harper’s marriage to Miss Elizabeth Perkins, of Moline, Illinois, was solemnized April 1, 1857. Died August 9, 1899. The members of his family who survive them are :
Lucy, widow of H. J. Lowery, of Chicago. Elizabeth, wife of F. J. Kinney, of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Thomas R., residing in Rock Island. Stuart, of Rock Island.
Fay R., of New York City.
A son, Benjamin, died in the year 1884, in Rock Island.