Remnants of the revolution

Hagerstown's places in automotive history still stand

Hagerstown's places in automotive history still stand

June 13, 2004|By CHRIS COPLEY

Visitors looking for Hagerstown's historical highlights might conclude there is more here for fans of the French and Indian War and Civil War than anything else.

But look around Hagerstown. Here and there are remnants of another revolutionary era - the 1890s to the 1920s, when automobiles evolved from eccentric oddity to plaything of the wealthy to dependable transportation for middle class America.

Former gas stations and auto dealerships stand vacant or have been retrofitted for new uses. A former gas station sits catty-corner from a gleaming Sheetz service station at the intersection of Sharpsburg Pike and Oak Ridge Drive in southern Hagerstown. A former Gulf Station on Jonathan Street next to Warenam Alley is now a used car lot.

There are even two former auto factories in town. The Spanish-styled Mller Apartments on the corner of Surrey and Summit avenues was for 15 years the home of Crawford Automobile Co., maker of the Crawford, a large car designed for the upper end of the auto market. And the massive brick building on Pope Avenue south of Rose Hill Cemetery was home of Pope Manufacturing Co., maker of the Pope-Tribune, the economy car of the Pope line. Later, Dagmars and a long line of taxicabs were produced there.


Almost none of the thousands of automobiles, trucks and taxicabs produced in Hagerstown survive. A couple of them - a Pope-Tribune and a Dagmar - will be on display at the Antique Automobile Club of America show next weekend at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center. They are part of a fading chapter of Hagerstown history.

Hagerstown's place in auto history stems from the work of two men - Boston businessman Albert Pope and mechanical engineer Robert Crawford of Gettysburg, Pa. - and the savvy investment of Hagerstown businessman Mathias Peter Mller, an emigrant from Denmark who made his fortune building pipe organs.

By 1898, Pope Manufacturing Co. was the largest bicycle maker in the United States. But a new invention - the noisy, smelly, speedy horseless carriage - gained popularity in the 1890s. The bicycle craze faded. Many manufacturers folded.

As with bicycles, autos could be made by anyone with basic mechanical skills. More than a hundred different manufacturers produced automobiles in Maryland alone. Some were successful; many were not.

"You had to sell cars. That's what happened to a lot of these carmakers - they couldn't sell their cars," said Bob Casey, curator of transportation for the The Henry Ford Museum's Benson Ford Research Center. "You had to have a dealer network - somebody selling these things. And you had to make improvements. Nearly all these cars had severe defects at first."

In 1905, Pope jumped on the automobile bandwagon. He reorganized Pope Manufacturing Co. and began to produce automobiles at six factories around the country.

Pope owned a huge plant in Hagerstown, where he built the Pope-Tribune, a small, two-seater that was the lowest-priced auto in the Pope line. The auto cost $650 when bought at the plant. It featured pneumatic tires and a steering wheel, different from the solid rubber tires and steering tiller common in many early autos.

A financial recession hit the United States in 1907. Consumer spending dropped. Many automobile producers folded, including the Pope Manufacturing Co. The plant on Pope Avenue went idle.

Biker turns carmaker

At the turn of the century, as interest in automobiles grew, a group of Hagerstown investors (including organ-maker M.P. Mller) decided to design and sell their own car. According to Hagerstown historian Frank Woodring, Mller and his partners hired Robert Crawford to operate the plant.

Crawford lived in a large house on the corner of Virginia Avenue and Surrey Street; his horse stable faced Summit Avenue. The first Crawford autos were made in the stable. After a few prototypes were produced in 1904, the Crawford went on the market in 1905.

A factory was built around the stable. Production of vehicles was small; Crawfords were made by hand, one at a time. Everything, even complicated parts like transmissions, was built by hand. According to records compiled by auto industry historians Arthur Lee Homan and Keith Marvin, only 62 autos were produced before the financial panic of 1907. Several financial backers, even Crawford himself, wanted out. Mller bought their shares and became the largest stockholder.

The Crawford auto underwent ongoing refinements to its design from 1908 through 1915. But the biggest development was the transition from hand-built to assembled production.

"It's called an 'assembled car,'" Casey said. "You went to Continental and bought an engine. You went to a whole bunch of suppliers and bought parts from them. That gave you flexibility, unlike Packard, where you had a facility where they could build all their parts."

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