County was first to be named after father of our country

May 01, 2006|by TOM RIFORD

Editor's Note: The Washington County Commissioners are expected to designate this week Washington County History Week. To celebrate the week, The Herald-Mail is publishing a five-part series written by local historians about the events, people and products that shaped the county.

One month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, Maryland held its first State Convention at the State House in Annapolis. On Sept. 6, 1776, the State Convention passed a resolution designating the land west of South Mountain a new county, Washington County, the new nation's first to be named for the Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army. At that time, Washington County included all the land that is now Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

As immigrants moved to America in great numbers, Maryland grew. The principal route used by the earliest German and Scotch-Irish settlers was the ancient "Warrior's Path," extending from New York through Washington County and on to Georgia. German Jonathan Hager arrived in 1739. He laid out Hagerstown, selling his first lots in 1768.


The road from Baltimore to Frederick was heavily traveled and soon extended over South Mountain at Turner's Gap, down into Boonsboro and on to Hagerstown. This stretch of highway was later known as the Baltimore Extension of National Road. The first macadamized road in America extended from Boonsboro to Hagerstown along the old road.

The road was the busiest in America for many years. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison each traveled it and stayed in Hagerstown on their way to being inaugurated President of the United States. Also traveling the road were Henry Clay, who married Lucretia Hart of Hagerstown, great Indian chiefs and hundreds more from all walks of life.

In early 19th-century America, trade became vital between people on the East Coast and the western farmlands. Goods were carried from the Chesapeake Bay, across the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio Valley on Conestoga wagons and stagecoach. The idea for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was born out of this popular route. The canal was started in 1828 at Georgetown and was finished 25 years later, extending for 83 miles through Washington County and on to Cumberland.

The railroad actually reached Cumberland before the canal. The Western Maryland Railroad was built from Baltimore to Cumberland, following the Potomac River on the Maryland side. The B&O Railroad built a branch trail line to Hagerstown. Other railroads came into Hagerstown from the north and south - the Penn Central and the Norfolk and Western.

In 1861, the Civil War began. Maryland remained a border state during the conflict, providing troops to both sides. Generally, Eastern Maryland residents supported the South, while those in Western Maryland favored the Northern cause. Southern troops occupied Washington County for about a week in 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg. Otherwise, Hagerstown changed hands for short periods of time throughout the war. The bloodiest single day in American military history occurred at Sharpsburg on Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.

Washington County sent men and women to war during World War I. During the final year of the war, 1918, the U.S. government opened the Clear Spring Proving Ground. Soldiers at the camp tested weapons which were then sent overseas to be used by soldiers in battle. It was one of only 11 United States proving grounds that operated during World War I. The camp was abandoned in November 1918.

From 1933 to 1939, a trail was cut on the crests of several of the Appalachian Mountains. Today, the Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states, from Maine to Georgia. Thirty-seven miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through Washington County along the border of Frederick County, Md.

In 1938, the National Park Service acquired the C&O Canal property. The towpath, which follows the Potomac River, was made into a recreational trail.

Washington County played a vital role in World War II because of the Fairchild-Hiller Corp. airplane factory in Hagerstown. Fairchild-Hiller made three models of fighter planes used to train pilots for combat, and a small passenger plane used to carry Army staffers. For years after the war, Fairchild also made cargo planes and later the famous A-10 attack jet.

Camp Ritchie, a Maryland National Guard base in the northeastern corner of the county, also was used during World War II. It was taken over by the United States War Department and was expanded for use as a military intelligence training center.

To learn more about Washington County's history, join the third annual Museum Ramble May 6 and 7, sponsored by the Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau. For information or directions, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 301-791-3246, Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites at 301-733-3638 or visit

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