Williamsport considered as a site for U.S. capital

August 02, 2004|by HEATHER C. SMATHERS

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


During its heyday as a thriving stop on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Williamsport was known for its "rough-and-ready reputation," according to a history of Williamsport written by local historian Pat Miller for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.

It did not start out that way.

The king of England granted Jeremiah Jack 175 acres of land in 1739. Jack occupied the land himself and in 1740 built a log cabin near Conococheague Creek, according to Miller's account.

One early settler of Williamsport was Col. Thomas Cresap, an American Indian fighter, Miller's history shows. Cresap lived on a farm on the eastern side of the Conococheague Settlement. The property became known as Springfield Farm because of a spring that runs through it.


Cresap sold the farm to Joseph and Prudence Williams, parents of Otho Holland Williams, future founder of Williamsport, in 1750.

Otho Holland Williams was born in Prince George's County in 1749, but moved to Western Maryland when he was a year old, said Maurice Snyder, Williamsport historian.

Williams went to Boston to join the Continental Army in 1775, documents show.

He returned to the newly formed Washington County in 1786, shortly after marrying the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant, Miller's documents show. Williams purchased property previously owned by his father.

Williams laid out the town of Williamsport in 1788, Snyder said. At the time of the founding of the town, there were 35 lots leased by residents who paid their rent in a donation of wheat every May, Snyder said.

After the Revolutionary War, Congress began to search for a location for the new nation's capital, Miller's records show. In 1791, President George Washington came to Williamsport to determine if it would make a suitable location for the capital, Snyder said.

"Williamsport was surveyed as a possible location for the national capital," Snyder said. "But the waters of the Potomac River were not navigable and the capital was located down river."

The town was incorporated in 1823.

Williamsport enjoyed economic prosperity for the 90 years the C&O Canal serviced the area, Miller's history shows.

The canal reached Williamsport in 1834, Snyder said.

"Many townspeople prospered from the canal. People work on the construction of the canal, built boats, and cared for animals being used in the construction of the canal," Snyder said.

Devastating floods closed the canal in 1924, he added.

During the Civil War, on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat from Gettysburg in July, 1863, the Potomac River's water level in Williamsport was so high that it prevented Lee from crossing into the safety of Virginia for several days. The pontoon bridge across the river had previously been destroyed during a cavalry raid. The river level eventually dropped enough for the construction of a new bridge, and on July 13, 1863, Lee and his army began to cross the river, Snyder said.

As Lee was preparing to leave Williamsport, he talked to townspeople at the Taylor Hotel, Snyder said.

"This town respects that Lee was here," he said.

In the same Civil War campaign, on July 7, 1863, Confederate Gen. John Daniel Imboden stopped Union Gen. John Buford from occupying Williamsport and destroying Confederate trains, according to historical documents.

The Cushwa Brick Co. opened in Williamsport in 1872, Snyder said. Cushwa bricks were used in schools, at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and in many government buildings in Washington, D.C., he said.

"If Williamsport couldn't be the capital, at least we got our bricks in it," Snyder said.

The company is still in operation as Redland Brick Co., Snyder said.

The Williamsport Memorial Library is dedicated in honor of 14 children who were killed in a bus accident in 1935 near Rockville, Md., Snyder said.

Snyder, 90, is a lifelong resident of Williamsport. He has seen the town progress in those 90 years, he said. He said he is proud of the direction the town is headed.

"The mayor, John Slayman, and the officers in town take pride in the community," he said.

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