Hagerstown celebrating its 250th anniversary

September 29, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • An obelisk marks the grave of Jonathan Hager, founder of Elizabeth Town (Hagerstown) who died in 1775, in the cemetery behind Zion Evangelical and Reformed Church. The Potomac Street churchyard is the final resting place of veterans of wars ranging from the French and Indian War to World War I.
File Photo

Just about anyone in Hagerstown and Washington County is familiar with the name Jonathan Hager.

Many know him as the founder of Maryland’s sixth largest city, the “Father of Washington County” or they’re aware that a historic house in City Park bears his name.

Hager, a German immigrant who came to Western Maryland from Pennsylvania in the late 1730s, purchased about 200 acres of land in the Great Appalachian Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains and called the area Hager’s Fancy, according to a plaque on the Hager House.

Hager later founded what would become Hagerstown in 1762, naming it Elizabethtown for his wife, Elizabeth Kershner.

After marrying, the couple moved to another home west of town, near the present-day Western Maryland Parkway, said Linda Irvin-Craig, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.

On Sept. 6, 1776, two months after the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, Washington County was created — named after Gen. George Washington.

The county was created simultaneously with Montgomery County when the state legislature decided to split up Frederick County, which covered the large portion of Western Maryland at the time, according to Roger Keller, a local historian for the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Washington and Montgomery counties are the first two counties in the (country) to be named by legislative action and not by royalty and decree,” he said, noting that Washington, Frederick, Montgomery, Allegany and Garrett counties were all once part of Prince George’s County.

In 1813, the city council officially changed the city’s name to Hagerstown because it had become popularly known as such, and the Maryland state legislature followed suit shortly thereafter. It was incorporated the same year.

Irvin-Craig said one of her ancestors, Henry Eavey, became a naturalized citizen in the same ceremony as Hager. 

Some historians believe Hager died in an accident during the construction of the German Reformed Church, which is now Zion Reformed United Church of Christ at 201 N. Potomac St. Others think he might have died while working at Hagers Mill, a family mill located — appropriately — on Mill Street in Hagerstown, Irvin-Craig said.

Keller said its most commonly believed that Hager died after a timber beam accidentally fell on him while building the church.

Born in 1714, Hager died Nov. 5, 1775, and is buried in the cemetery on the premises of Zion Reformed.

In her publication “Jonathan Hager, Founder,” author Mary Vernon Mish calls Hager much more than just a founder, writing he was a pioneer, soldier, citizen, civic promoter, public office-holder and visionary.

Among his many activities as a farmer, cattleman, hunter, trapper and even a gunsmith, Hager also served as a volunteer scout during the French and Indian War, according to the city’s website.

State’s second largest city

Although Hagerstown today is just outside the top five Maryland cities in size, it was for many years the second largest, due to major roadways from Philadelphia and Baltimore that converged here, Irvin-Craig said.

Eastern settlers migrating west and south had little choice but to travel through Hagerstown on their way, spurring quick expansion especially along Washington and Prospect streets, she said.

“(Washington Street) was a national road out here,” Irvin-Craig said. “It was two ways in those days, but not much more than mud and dust.”

Many large homes were built and hotels popped up because of all the travel through the area around the turn of the 19th century.

Hagerstown became a major destination and its proximity to main travel routes, waterways and fertile farmlands created opportunities during the Industrial Revolution, quickly earning it the nickname “The Hub City,” Irvin-Craig said.

“As the railroads developed, we had five railroads that came through Hagerstown. This was a major depot area,” she said. “This was not just the east-west stop. It was also the north-south because people coming down out of Franklin County (Pa.) ... came here to avoid those huge mountains in western Pennsylvania and Western Maryland. They could slip down (and) there were some good places to cross the river to get to the south — shallow places, ferries.”

Mills could be found along the Antietam and Conococheague creeks, among other tributaries, as farmers had to get their products prepped to take to market or for in-home use, Irvin-Craig said.

“Long before there were factories, there were mills,” she said. “And they were an extremely important part of the development of this county, but certainly the city as well.”

Tradework by local craftsmen also grew immensely. Hagerstown became home to many trades that wouldn’t be considered industry by today’s standards. Silversmiths, potters and clockmakers became the forefathers for evolving industries in the years that followed.

An exhibit currently on display at the Miller House, which was built in 1825 and is home to the county’s historical society, includes a grandfather clock manufactured in Hagerstown between 1797 and 1808, Irvin-Craig said.

“It was a wonderfully fertile valley,” she added. “That was the other thing that drew people in here.”

Foundries also became a big part of local industry. A Mount Aetna foundry actually built cannons for Washington’s army during the American Revolutionary War era, Keller said.

Another reason for growth

The area blossomed because of its location, but also because of efforts to protect the lands in Western Maryland from being overtaken by France. Most of the English settled in Baltimore and the eastern part of the colony upon arrival in America, and settlers were needed to get out and occupy the west.

“They were under threat because the French were coming down out of Canada and were trying to claim all the western lands,” Irvin-Craig said. “That was where the French and Indian War came into things.”

As the French continued south from Canada, taking over pretty much all of the Ohio Valley, the English decided the only way they could keep the land was to get it settled. By making land affordable, it enticed many to relocate to the area, Irvin-Craig said.

Hager became a leader of sorts as he ventured out into land previously uninhabited by the new settlers.

Jennifer Smith, collections and exhibition manager for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, said Hager took a “risk” in moving here, largely due to the possibility of Indian attacks.

Keller said attacks and ambushes by the natives were common during the time that Hagerstown was being settled.

“We had a lot of Indian problems here,” he said. “We had 13 house-forts during the French and Indian period. The Hager House was a house-fort.”

While the Hager House might look like a normal house from the outside, Keller said that the basement window frames were cut wider on the inside than the outside, allowing a rifleman to angle-shoot from cover inside.

The house also had two freshwater streams running out from underneath it, which was important because if someone had to travel far from the house for water, there was a chance they might not make it back alive, Keller added.

“Nobody really wanted to move out here,” Smith said. “He took the risk of moving out to Western Maryland ... It’s just interesting to see where we’ve come from, from that time to today.”

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, located near the Hager House in City Park, currently has a small exhibit on the Hager family, including several items that were owned by Hager and a portrait of Hager’s daughter, Rosanna, painted by Joseph Wright, the same artist who did portraits for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Civil War in Hagerstown

Almost a century after Hager’s passing, several Civil War battles took place in Washington County and Hagerstown, which became a strategic location for both armies as a staging area and supply depot in four major campaigns.

A large-scale cavalry battle took place on the streets of Hagerstown in mid-July 1863 as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his men retreated toward Williamsport after being defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Keller said city hall at that time became a hospital for the wounded and a storage center for ammunition. He also recalled reports of bullet holes riddling some downtown buildings.

It also created a lot of animosity among residents of the city, who were split by their north and south alliances, Keller said.

“It was a hard time for people,” he said, noting that area farmers were hit hardest because the armies on both sides of the Civil War were in need of food and supplies occupying various parts throughout the county during the war.

City Hall/Little Heiskell

Hagerstown City Hall and the replica of the “Little Heiskell” weathervane that is perched atop it are two significant city landmarks that are widely recognized today.

Originally located in Public Square before it was built at its current location on North Potomac Street around 1818, City Hall has undergone several additions over the years. It was demolished in 1938 and rebuilt as the current structure, which opened about two years later.

The original county courthouse sat adjacent to the original City Hall in Public Square before it was moved to West Washington Street, where it is today, Keller said.

Little Heiskell, one of the most recognizable symbols of the now 250-year-old city, was named after German tinsmith Benjamin Heiskell, who crafted the weathervane around 1769.

“It looks like it might be a Revolutionary War soldier,” Keller said.

Hagerstown’s original City Hall offices were located on the second floor of a market house on the square, Keller said. Little Heiskell sat atop that building before it was moved to the North Potomac Street building in 1824.

In 1935, the original weathervane was taken down and given to the county historical society. It can be found at the Hager House museum, Keller said.

The original Little Heiskell received its trademark bullet hole during the Civil War era.

By some historical accounts, it was shot by a Confederate sharpshooter, who won a bet after hitting it from a full city block away. Others said it might have been collateral damage of Confederates firing upon Union forces using the Zion Reformed church’s bell tower as a lookout.

However, Keller said he has seen a newspaper story from the time period saying that the original weathervane actually had two bullet holes in it.

“As far as I know, the one at the Hager House only has one in it,” he said. “So I don’t know if we have a third Heiskell ... I just don’t know.”

Little Heiskell was at one time the mascot of North Hagerstown High School.


On the web

The City of Hagerstown has launched a website dedicated to its 250th anniversary celebration. For more information about Hagerstown today, where it’s been and where the city is going, go to

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