Hancock man has delved into town's history

December 12, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

HANCOCK - Hancock Historical Society President Donald F. Corbett often calls elder townsman Ralph H. Donnelly a "walking encyclopedia."

"He's a very knowledgeable person," Corbett said. "If you want to know anything about Hancock, you can go to him."

Donnelly, 92, has spent many years researching Hancock's history, he said.

He has donated vintage tools and other antiques from his collection to the Hancock Town Museum, helped organize the museum's historical library, and contributed information from his "Origin of the Town of Hancock" to the town's Web site, he said.

"It's a fascinating area around here," Donnelly said.

Early maps show European settlers in the settlement once located on Maryland's frontier edge as early as the 1730s, according to a town history at


Donnelly's historical research uncovered a 1736 map of the Upper Potomac River that shows "Polk" as a resident on the north side of the Potomac just west of Little Tonoloway Creek.

Fur trader Charles Polke - known as the "Indian Trader of the Potomac" - was one of the earliest settlers in the Hancock area. Polke was great-grand-uncle to U.S. President James Knox Polk, the Web site states.

The trader set up shop in an area that is now a part of the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park just south of West Main Street in Hancock.

Polke's trading post would become the site of an early fort - Fort Tonoloway - that Maryland Gov. Horatio Sharp had built for protection from marauding Indians, and later the site of the town of Hancock, according to Donnelly's research.

"Origin of the Town of Hancock" is filled with details about the land deals that helped shape the town as it is today. Donnelly said he combed through old deeds to find the information.

He also completed the title search for Hancock's historic old National Pike Road Toll House at Md. 144 and Locher Road just west of the town limits, Donnelly said.

Hancock officials several years ago obtained the property deed from Toll House owners William and Dorothy Dugan to begin restoration of the historic structure, which was used to collect tolls from travelers on the old National Road (Pike).

The road was charted between Hancock and Cumberland, Md., in 1819 and completed in 1822, following an 18th century frontier trail. Donnelly took special interest in studying the history of the old National Road from west of Hagerstown to Cumberland, in Allegany County, Md., he said.

That area of the National Pike became known as the "Bank Road" because it was funded with bonds from state banks.

A retired civil engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y., Donnelly in the early 1930s worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps to develop Cacapon State Park off U.S. 522 in Morgan County, W.Va., he said.

Cacapon State Park opened in 1937, two years after Donnelly married Hancock native Adele Cohill, whose grandfather planted Tonoloway Orchard.

The couple still lives in the same hilltop Hancock home in which Adele Cohill Donnelly was raised.

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