Hagerstown story begins with real estate bargain

June 28, 2004|by HEATHER C. SMATHERS

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of stories examining the history of towns in Washington County.

HAGERSTOWN - When the proprietor of Maryland, Charles Calvert, offered inexpensive land to settlers to build in Western Maryland in the 18th century, a young German immigrant named Jonathan Hager accepted the challenge of settling on what was then the frontier.

Records from the Washington County Historical Society show that on June 5, 1739, Hager purchased 200 acres of land he named "Hager's Fancy" for 44 pounds. In 1740, Hager married Elizabeth Kershner, who also was a German immigrant. Hager presented his new bride with a stone house he had just completed, records show.

Hager's house, based on German designs, is a structural masterpiece made of fieldstone, which Hager himself cut and carefully fitted together. Hager situated his house over two springs so a clean supply of water was nearby in case of attacks by American Indians, documents show. Hager's house still stands in its original location.


Records show Hager continued to acquire land until he amassed a total of 2,488 acres. He first laid out his town in 1762, near the end of the French and Indian War. It was laid out in 520, 1/2-acre lots with three north-south streets and four east-west streets.

Name change

He named his town Elizabeth-Town after his wife. In 1768, Hager began selling lots for $25 each, plus $1 per year quid rent, records show. The original names of the streets are not known, but records show they encompassed the four present-day blocks of downtown Hagerstown.

Elizabeth-Town was at the crossroads of two major colonial roads, the Great Valley Road from Pennsylvania to Kentucky and Tennessee and the National Road from Baltimore to Indiana, said Melinda Marsden, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.

Elizabeth-Town was named the county seat of the newly formed Washington County in 1776.

The town commonly was called Hager's Town due to the popularity of its founder, records show.

In 1814, Hagerstown was incorporated and Henry Lewis was elected the first moderator. In 1848, it changed to a mayor-council style of government, with John Robertson serving as the first mayor, according to historical documents.

Hagerstown got its nickname, Hub City, with the coming of the railroad industry. Many railroads came through and met in Hagerstown, including Washington County Railroad, Western Maryland Railway and Cumberland Valley Railroad.

The first of the railroads, the Franklin Railroad, arrived in Hagerstown in 1841, with the remaining lines coming after the Civil War, Marsden said. The Franklin Railroad came from Harrisburg, Pa., and ended in Hagerstown, she said.

During the Civil War, on July 6, 1864, Confederate Gen. John McCausland requested $20,000 and clothing from the citizens of the town. Three local banks were able to come up with the money and townspeople signed notes to the bank, thus preventing Hagerstown from being burned by the Confederates, historical documents show.


In 1901, Mary Titcomb, a librarian in Hagerstown, had an idea of taking books to people who were not able to go to the library. With the help of another librarian, Nellie Chrissinger, who drove the covered wagon to outlying parts of the county, the first bookmobile was established, documents in the Washington County Historical Society show.

Hagerstown's most recognized landmark is the "Little Heiskell" weathervane, a tin silhouette of a Hessian soldier that sits atop the City Hall clock tower. It was named after the German tinsmith who designed it around 1769. The weathervane sitting on city hall today is a replica - the original was sent to the Jonathan Hager Museum in 1935, documents show.

With Hagerstown being the first of the major cities in Western Maryland, it developed problems of city life earlier on, Marsden said. With manufacturing, railroads and big hotels for travelers, Hagerstown had many reasons to become a big town, she said.

Now, more than 200 years after Hagerstown was designed, preserving historical locations while redeveloping is important, Marsden said.

"We won't redevelop like Frederick (Md.) did. With Hagerstown being older than Frederick, it will be more difficult to grow the way Frederick did," Marsden said. "It's harder to redevelop bigger buildings."

Next week: A look at Hancock.

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