Top 10 events of the 20th century

December 31, 1999

Editor's note: After consulting with local historians, we've chosen 10 events that shaped Washington County over the last hundred years. The list is not intended to be comprehensive. Its aim is to tell the story of the county over the 20th century.

Top 10 events in Washington County during the 20th century:

1. City Park purchased (1915)

2. Flu epidemic of 1918

3. Hagerstown Fairgrounds peaked (1910s and 1920s)

4. Flood of 1936

5. World War II

6. Interstate highways built (1958 through 1968)

7. Chesapeake & Ohio Canal becomes a national park (1971)

8. J.J. Newberry's fire (1974)


9. Fairchild closes (1983)

10. Citicorp arrives (1986)

By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

We begin our story with 50 acres of swampland near downtown Hagerstown.

The Hagerstown City Council decided to buy the land, originally owned by Hagerstown's founder Jonathan Hager, to create a park.

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Over some protest, the $40,000 sale was approved by city voters in the spring of 1915.

The city borrowed $65,000 to create what is now one of the area's jewels, Hagerstown City Park, featuring a lake, natural woodlands and an art museum.

But the good times didn't last.

World War I arrived, taking the lives of 72 Washington County soldiers.

Even more devastating to the county was the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918.

An estimated 335 county residents died that winter, said Dr. George W. Comstock, a Johns Hopkins researcher in Hagerstown.

That's one out of every 178 county residents.

And the flu didn't fall upon just the old or infirm.

It seemed to attack families randomly, striking down breadwinners in their prime, Comstock said

Fountain Head Country Club became a hospital.

A temporary nursery was set up at the Mansion House in City Park to take care of the children whose parents were sick or dead.

The Great Hagerstown Fair, held during the month of October from 1854 through 1980, even had to cancel its activities.

However, the years before and after the war and the flu, the fair enjoyed a boom.

The railroad lines that made Hagerstown the "Hub City" during the previous century brought thousands of people to the fair.

What newspaper accounts of the time billed as the "greatest poultry exhibition hall in the world" was built in time for the 1910 fair. It held more than 40,000 birds.

In 1923, a single day's attendance hit 50,000.

The fair continued, with smaller crowds, during the Depression years, although livestock exhibits upstaged the poultry show.

The fair was a showcase for the area's agricultural community until it closed in 1980.

The scaled-down Ag Expo took its place in that role, reflecting a steady decline in the farming industry.

Farmers were at the mercy of the weather throughout the century.

But arguably the biggest weather event occurred on St. Patrick's Day 1936.

The Potomac River flooded towns all along its 78-mile path along the southern border of the county.

Although it was not the only time the river left its banks during the century, it was the highest and most devastating flood.

In Hancock, the river crested at 47.6 feet. Flood stage is 30 feet.

The water rose as high as the second story of homes and people had to be rescued by boat.

"A lot of people just lost everything they had," said local historian Don Corbett of Hancock.

Hancock resident Ralph Donnelly, 89, remembers that day.

Donnelly, an engineer at Cacapon State Park, crossed the bridge from West Virginia and shortly after watched it drop into the river.

Five years later, the flood's impact would be overshadowed by the country's entry into World War II.

More than any other war, World War II changed the face of Washington County.

Nearly every industry in Hagerstown was called into service to produce war goods.

Even the Moller pipe organ company, the world's largest pipe organ manufacturer, made airplane wings and center sections for Fairchild Aircraft Corp.

Fairchild was the workhorse, churning out 6,000 planes, most of them the widely used PT-19Bs.

Washington County factories produced $200 million worth of war goods, greater than any other county in the state except for Baltimore.

During the course of the war, 7,281 men in Washington County were accepted for military service. About 200 died.

Local residents had to ration food, just as they had done during World War I.

Times were good during the post-war building boom.

Although railroad passenger service was waning, the Hub City was setting its sights on a new form of transportation - the car.

The county was poised to take advantage of the prospects opened up by the interstate highway system, built to crisscross here just south of Hagerstown.

The first local stretch of Interstate 81 opened in 1958 from U.S. 40 to the Pennsylvania line. The rest of the 12-mile Washington County leg was finished in 1966 and now there's a push to add a lane in each direction.

Meanwhile, work on Interstate 70 began in Breezewood, Pa., in 1963.

The final link of the highway wasn't filled until 1968.

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