HTG Sandy Hook beginnings based on folklore

September 22, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

Residents of Sandy Hook might not know much about how their little town sprang at the base of Elk Ridge at the southern tip of Washington County, but the houses seem to know.

Lined up like sentinels on one side of the narrow, gravelly Sandyhook Road, the houses, many more than 100 years old, all face the same direction, their windows gazing out over layers of American history: the road, the railroad, the C&O Canal and the Potomac River.

Today, these features bring in more hikers and paddlers on weekends than the town has residents, giving Sandy Hook its identity as a place to hike into from the C&O Canal towpath or the Appalachian Trail for a soda or to put a raft in the river.

But about 170 years ago, it was the construction of the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad that gave birth to the town of Sandy Hook, local historians figure.


The locks of the C&O Canal between Seneca and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were constructed between 1830 and 1833, competing for land with the railroad, which was extended from Point of Rocks to Sandy Hook between 1832 and 1834.

"The local folklore is that (Sandy Hook) was probably one of the little riverside settlements that were put together to house the railroad and canal workers in the 1830s," said John Powell, a park ranger at neighboring Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Powell, who passes through Sandy Hook every day, said the original inhabitants probably were Irish immigrants recruited to help build the canal with axes, picks and shovels.

This theory is consistent with J. Thomas Scharf's "History of Western Maryland," which says only two houses existed in Sandy Hook around 1830, including that of an early settler named Mr. Grow, but lists a population of 373 when the book was published in 1882. Today, residents guess there are about 150 people in town.

Scharf's history says the name Sandy Hook came from a quicksand pool where a teamster lost his team on the road to Frederick City. Whether or not this actually happened, residents say the name must have had something to do with the river's sandy shore near its hook-like bend.

Before it was Sandy Hook, the town was known as Keep Tryst, after the Keep Tryst Iron Furnace, where Harpers Ferry historian John King said iron ore was melted down for the foundry at Antietam Ironworks, which operated prior to the Civil War.

Sitting on a wooden deck and looking up at the foliage on the mountain reminded Sandy Hook resident Mark Hughes of a picture he'd once seen at Antietam National Battlefield of the mountain back in the ironwork days.

"There was not a tree on it. It was completely bare," he said.

That was partially because the area had been logged by charcoal makers, who stacked the wood in pyramids and burned it, then chipped off the charcoal and shipped it by wagon for use in the iron furnaces, Hughes said.

"There's a lot of neat stuff that went on here that you don't even realize happened," Hughes said.

Although Harpers Ferry, just across the river, gets more attention when it comes to Civil War history, King said Sandy Hook played a role as well. The town was known as a remount camp where soldiers could get new horses when their old ones were killed or worn out, King said.

The C&O Canal continued commercial operations until 1924, when it succumbed to a flood and competition from the faster, more reliable B&O Railroad.

Today, Sandy Hook has only one store, Sandy Hook Grocery, within the town itself, and gets its mail from Knoxville in Frederick County, Md.

Richard Mills, the owner of Sandy Hook Grocery, has noticed the change.

"It used to be you knowed everybody in town," said Mills, 59, as he sat with Hughes on the deck one evening drinking beer. Now, he said, there are some new families, but "they learn to deal with us."

"I think Sandy Hook gets a bad rep," Mills said, but said he feels family values remain strong in the town.

"People here are tight," Hughes said. "If you need a hand, they help you. They'd give the shirt off their back."

The real worry, for Mills, comes from the "city people" who come down for river recreation but don't realize they need to look both ways before crossing the railroad tracks, who throw all of their trash away in his store and who don't have money for phone calls. He also worries about overweight buses crossing the town's narrow bridge.

As for the town's "colorful" railroad and Civil War past, "no one seems to know much about it," Powell said.

"By and large, it's a little forgotten community," he said.

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