Unusual burial request by ‘cantankerous’ captain
Karen Schwartz, Special to The Corydon Democrat
Did you know there is a mysterious tomb on the brow of the hills high above the Ohio River in Posey Township?
This unusual reminder of the steamboat era in Harrison County is known as McHarry’s Tomb. The explanation of the mystery begins with Capt. Francis T. (Frank) McHarry, an Irish immigrant who made his home on the other side of the river in Portland, Ky.
As a steamboat captain, his fortunes were closely tied to the river. McHarry’s other Ohio River ventures included investing in the Portland Canal, cement production, operating a ferryboat which bore his name between New Albany and Louisville and ownership of a steamer named Music, which was built at the Howard Shipyards in Jeffersonville.
In his early career, McHarry’s investments paid off handsomely, and he became a wealthy man who married well. His wife was Sarah Beeler, daughter of the prominent Beeler family of New Albany. The McHarrys built a fine mansion on North Western Parkway in Louisville. Additionally, he purchased large tracts of land on the Indiana side of the river. McHarry’s river connections had often taken him past beautiful Locust Point near Bridgeport in Posey Township.
As the river industry modernized, McHarry’s early good fortunes reversed themselves. Always an eccentric individual, McHarry became cantankerous and ultimately developed hard feelings toward the Ohio River and those who plied their trade there. Embittered, he decided he wanted to spend eternity on the banks of the Ohio wreaking revenge.
McHarry selected a very prominent site four hundred feet above the river pinpointed by the Army Corps of Engineers at river mile marker 619.5 below Pittsburgh on the Ohio River chart about 10 miles below New Albany.
He ordered the construction of a massive, pyramid-shaped tomb measuring 20 feet by 40 feet made of precisely placed rectangular limestone blocks, each weighing hundreds of pounds.
It must have been quite an ordeal for McHarry’s workmen to move the massive stones to the tomb site and construct the burial chamber.
In tribute to the future occupant’s nautical connections, the tomb featured a porthole above the entryway. Selected because of its commanding view atop Beeler Hill, legend says that McHarry emphatically stated that, when he died, he wanted to be buried in this isolated mausoleum in a standing position so that he might be able to look upon and rain curses down on his fellow steamboat captains as they passed below his resting place on the Ohio River.
McHarry died on Feb. 15, 1857, at the age of 52, and his faithful friends and family honored his unusual burial wishes. Conducting the funeral services in frigid February must have presented an arduous task, as well, as one imagines the hearse or pallbearers laboring to make the trek to the site bearing McHarry’s human remains. Of course, roadways which no longer exist crisscrossed the hilltop at that time.
McHarry’s body remained sealed in the tomb for many years but is no longer there. After his widow died in 1888, his remains were moved to the Irwin (James E. Irwin was McHarry’s son-in-law) Mausoleum, one of the most impressive vaults in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, to join his wife in death. He might have wanted to be buried there on that lonely hill, but she had other wishes.
A notice in The Corydon Democrat from Oct. 8, 1919, indicates that Capt. McHarry wasn’t the only body that ever occupied McHarry’s tomb. According to this excerpt reprinted from The Courier-Journal, four bodies were buried and subsequently removed several years after McHarry’s body had been re-interred in Cave Hill.
‘George Shrader, undertaker of New Albany, today will move from the McHarry vault in a cliff on the Ohio river below Bridgeport, four bodies which will be buried in Holy Trinity Catholic cemetery. They are William Grover Beeler, buried in 1894; Frank Beeler, buried in 1897; Joseph Earl Beeler, buried in 1898; and William Guy Beeler, buried in 1905, all sons of the late John Beeler, who died recently at his home near Bridgeport and was buried in Holy Trinity Cemetery.’ ‘ The Courier-Journal, Oct. 1.
McHarry’s empty tomb, inaccessible and on private property, stands silent and empty today, despite assaults by vandals during the past 100 years.
In the winter season, when the leaves have fallen, the vault is visible from the Kentucky side of the river from the Farnsley Moorman Landing as well as by commercial and pleasure boaters traveling up and down the Ohio River.
Inscriptions on the tomb were ‘Frank McHarry’s Family Vault,’ and ‘Alexander McHarry (Frank’s father) of County Down near Grey’s Abbey, Ireland. Died Feb. 20th 1850 in the 78th year of his age,’ and poetic verses including:
‘When you are called
To meet your friend
Love endure and
Sabbath never end.’
Karen Schwartz, president of the Historical Society of Harrison County, serves on the legacy group of the Harrison County Committee for the Indiana Bicentennial. In preparation of Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016, she is providing a monthly column ‘ focusing on a person, place or event from Harrison County’s history ‘ that gives insight to our history. She said the columns should serve as an introduction and/or summary of a topic but are not intended to include all known facts and information. To suggest a topic, contact Schwartz at 812-736-2373 or 812-738-2828, by e-mail at [email protected] or by regular mail at 5850 Devil’s Elbow Road NW, Corydon, IN 47112.