100 years of Transportation

June 25, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is the sixth and last story in our series looking back at how Washington County has changed through this century. In July, we'll start looking forward to the challenges of the new millennium. Look for our series on the last Sunday of each month in NewsPlus.

From canals and railroads to airplanes and highways - the transportation revolution of the 20th century shaped Washington County into what it is today.

Seventy-eight miles of the C&O Canal evolved from an active business venture to an even more active tourist attraction.

Highway builders blasted through hillsides, bringing the county closer to the cities.

Trolleys brought electricity to rural towns.

And Hagerstown became known as the "Hub City" because of all the railroads that converged here.

Transportation industries were often the largest employers in the county. And transportation is the primary reason businesses bring new plants and new jobs to the county today, according to economic development officials.


The push to grow west and bring raw materials from the frontier to the cities in the east prompted early transportation projects.

George Washington had dreamed of making the Potomac River navigable from Georgetown to the Ohio River Valley. He even oversaw the construction of some early smaller canals. But by the time President John Quincy Adams broke ground on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a faster way west was already on the way - the railroad.

In fact, the C&O Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad broke ground on their western routes on the same day - July 4, 1828.

The 184.5-mile canal from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown enjoyed about 15 years of financial success following the Civil War. But by 1900 it was in crisis and the B&O Railroad was subsidizing its operations in hopes of keeping rival railroads away.

Lula Harsh, 86, lived next to a canal lock, which her father operated during the waterway's final years.

She remembers only an occasional boat, typically filled with coal, passing through the lock.

Mostly, she remembers swimming in the canal in the summer and ice skating on it during the winter.

She was 12 when operations stopped after a flood damaged the canal in 1924 and the B&O decided not to pay for repairs.

The B&O maintained ownership until the federal government purchased it in 1938 for $2 million.

There were proposals off and on to turn the canal bed into a highway, or to flood it.

But nothing happened until 1954, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas took his now famous walking tour of the towpath to draw attention to its natural beauty.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the canal a Historic National Monument in 1960. Then on Jan. 8, 1971, President Richard Nixon designated the canal and towpath a National Historical Park.

The canal is now a tourist and recreation attraction, drawing an estimated 1 million hikers, bikers and joggers annually to the Washington County portion alone.

As the canal was slowly losing traffic, railroads were reaching their peak in the early 1900s.

Until the late 1930s, more Washington County residents worked for railroads than for any other industry.

Between 1905 and 1912 the Western Maryland Railroad had more than 3,000 employees in Hagerstown, according to Carroll F. Spitzer, curator of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum.

"Twenty-five percent of all families had at least one member working on the railroad. And the pay was good. It was enough to buy a house and send your kids to college," Spitzer said.

For decades steam trains and electric trolleys were the primary means of transportation for most county residents.

Buses, trucks and cars eventually would displace them, but in 1900, only the upper class had automobiles. And trucking and busing companies didn't really compete until after World War II.

In 1900, four railroad companies sent trains into Washington County. On a busy day in 1911, about 170 trains came through Hagerstown.

In 1913 the Western Maryland Railroad opened a train station near downtown Hagerstown, where as many as 30 passenger trains would depart every day.

Today only about 20 trains a day move through the county, all of them hauling freight, Spitzer said.

Passenger service ended in 1957. The station is now the headquarters for the Hagerstown Police Department.

The many railroads that converged on Hagerstown in the early 1900s made the area attractive for businesses that depended on shipping.

"The railroad built Hagerstown, it wasn't the other way around," Spitzer said. "If it wasn't for the railroad Hagerstown would be like Boonsboro."

Earl Selby, 88, who worked on the rails here for more than 40 years, said when the railroads came to town, every factory wanted to be near them.

Rail service continues to be a major factor today in attracting new companies to the county, according to Timothy R. Troxell, assistant director of the Washington County Economic Development Commission.

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