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Sharpsburg rich with 250 years of history

June 23, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Sharpsburg's Big Spring; the town was founded around the water source in the mid-1700s.
By Kevin G. Gilbert / Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG, Md. — It’s been almost 250 years since Joseph Chapline founded the town of Sharpsburg, after following his father to Western Maryland and leading a militia unit in the French and Indian War.

It was in the following year, 1764, that Chapline started selling the 187 lots among the eight streets he laid out for the town around a spring.

Two-and-a-half centuries later, the boundaries are basically the same and the town consists of the same eight streets, although some of their names have changed, according to Sharpsburg Historical Society President Vernell Doyle.

“I think it’s a marvel that it has been preserved as it is,” Doyle said.

The town was founded on July 9, 1763. The historical society is organizing a free day of activities on Sunday, July 7, to commemorate the 250th anniversary.

The town’s population remains small — 705 residents as of the 2010 decennial Census — and town officials have tried to guard against major development in the area.

Still, housing has sprung up around the town over the centuries.

Doyle said the boundaries have been expanded by only a few lots since the town’s founding. Except for the smaller lots at Town Square, which originally sat farther back from the intersection, the lots were each a half-acre, she said.

The town hasn’t had much room to expand, but town officials have wanted to keep it small, said Hal Spielman, who has been mayor for 10 years.

Much of the land around the town is federal park land, agricultural or woodland areas, or has easements preventing development, said Kim Fulk, who is town clerk and Spielman’s daughter.

“I think it’s just small, and a quaint little town,” Spielman said.


The beginning

In the late 1720s, about 10 years before Chapline arrived near what would one day become Sharpsburg, another settler received a deed for about 10,000 acres in the area from a group of Native American chiefs, said Ed Beeler, a historical society member who researched the town’s founding for a Chapline biography he recently co-wrote.

That settler, Israel Friend, was believed to be married to a Native American woman, Beeler said.

But Samuel Ogle, the provincial governor for the Maryland colony, wouldn’t accept the deed, Beeler said.

Delaware, Shawnee and Catawba natives lived in the area before white settlers arrived, Beeler said.

Joseph Chapline was about 31 years old when he settled in the area, around 1738 to 1739, he said. Beeler co-wrote “Searching for Joseph Chapline: Maryland Frontiersman and Founder of Sharpsburg, Maryland” with Chapline descendant Michael J. Chapline.

About nine years earlier, Chapline’s father, William Chapline III, settled across the Potomac River in Virginia. Joseph Chapline, the oldest of seven children, remained in southeast Prince George’s County, near what is now Washington, D.C., taking care of his siblings, Beeler said.

When Joseph Chapline moved to the local area, he settled near his father, but east of the Potomac River.

He was a lawyer in Annapolis; a justice of the peace in Frederick County — when this area was part of the county; a captain in the French and Indian War; a tobacco farmer in the local area; and an assemblyman for the Maryland colony from 1749 to 1767, Beeler said.

Chapline had the new town chartered in 1763 and started to sell lots in 1764, according to Sharpsburg Historical Society officials and Washington County historian John Frye.

Frye said that, in his mind, Sharpsburg is the oldest municipality in the county because it was the first town to have lot sales recorded.

Chapline named the town for Horatio Sharpe, a friend who was a provincial governor for the Maryland colony, according to town history.

He laid out the town around Garrison’s Spring, an important source of water for the town’s residents and livestock until 1967, when a water treatment plant was built along the Potomac River, historical society officials said.


Working community

Among the first to buy lots in the new town of Sharpsburg were John Miller and Christian Orndorf, according to a list that  historical society members compiled.

Miller paid a shilling for his half-acre, and opened the first store in town, historical society officials said. The building that housed the store still stands on West Main Street. It housed the Nicodemus family’s restaurant in the mid-1800s and is now vacant, Beeler said.

Orndorf had a mill near Middle Bridge, near where the Newcomer House — formerly the Orndorf house — stands on Antietam National Battlefield, Beeler said.

Orndorf bought the lot, Lot 13, that included the big spring, Doyle said.

Other names on the list of lot purchasers included Good, Eversole, Hays, Piper and Judy.

Before the town had a main road north to Hagerstown, it had an east-west road — today’s Main Street, which was labeled on a 1737 map as a wagon road to Philadelphia, Doyle said.

In 1765, Thomas Van Swearingen was authorized to establish a ferry, which crossed the Potomac River near where the remains of Lock 38 are today, Doyle said.

Before the ferry went into operation, wagons crossed the river at Packhorse Ford, about a mile south of Ferry Hill, she said.

The ferry ran until 1850, when a wooden covered toll bridge was built at that site, historical society officials said. That bridge stood until the Confederates burned it in 1861, early in the Civil War.

In addition to founding the town, Chapline and three partners were responsible for the town’s first major employer, Doyle said.

Chapline, David Ross, Samuel Beall Jr., and Richard Henderson bought the Frederick Iron Works south of town, off today’s Harpers Ferry Road, and changed the name to Antietam Iron Furnace, Beeler said.

The tall stone furnace with three ovens was used to make pig iron, a crude iron that often was shipped elsewhere to make various items such as nails.

The furnace closed in the late 1800s.

The furnace operation was expanded to include a forge, a nail factory, a grist mill and a sawmill, Beeler said. A dam constructed at Antietam Creek would have diverted water to operate the mills, historical society officials said.

The town also had blacksmiths and some tanning operations along Church and Antietam streets as well as along Antietam Creek outside town, historical society officials said. Many residents were farmers, living in town and running farms outside town, Doyle said.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal became a major employer in the area, starting with construction of the section in the Sharpsburg area around 1835 and lasting through the canal’s heyday in the 1870s. The increasing popular railroad and major flooding resulted in the canal halting operations in 1924, according to the National Park Service.

An old train station still stands west of town along Shepherdstown Pike, although the original station burned down, Doyle said.

It initially was called the Sharpsburg Station, Doyle said, but the name was changed to Antietam Station after a dispatcher confused the Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown stations, and two trains collided.


The Civil War

The town is most often associated with the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam, referred to in the South as the Battle of Sharpsburg.

“The town was stripped, basically,” Doyle said. “Confederates came in and ate everything.”

Many homes in town became hospitals to care for the injured and dying following the Sept. 17, 1862, battle.

Soldiers died in those homes and were buried temporarily in backyards and alleys, Beeler said.

Damage from the war, some from artillery fire, is still visible on some town buildings, including one on the southwest corner of Town Square and another building across West Main Street that is owned by former mayor Sidney Gale, Beeler said.

Many residents received little or no compensation for damage because the Union government, which won the war, told property owners they had to prove the Union Army did the damage and not the Confederate Army, Doyle said.

Many residents left the area after the battle, including the Pry family, which went to Tennessee, Doyle said. The Pry House on Shepherdstown Pike, which served as Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s headquarters during the battle, is now a field hospital museum that is part of Antietam National Battlefield.

The town’s population, which was at about 1,300 people around 1860, decreased significantly after the Civil War and never rebounded, Doyle said.

Shortly after the war in 1866, Tolson’s Chapel was built on High Street for the black population, and a school for black children operated in the chapel, Doyle said. The Freedman’s Bureau operated that school until about 1870, when the Washington County school board took over its operation, she said.

The school remained in the chapel until 1899, when the school system opened a school down the block for black children, Doyle said.

A 1922 Sanborn Insurance Map shows the chapel and a school for black children on High Street, and two school buildings for white children a block away on Antietam Street.


Modern era

While much of Washington County experienced growth in the 20th and 21st centuries, Sharpsburg remains small.

The town has, for a long time, been a residential community with many residents commuting to work.

Town Hall was built in 1911, and behind it still runs the spring around which the town was built.

Known over time as Garrison’s Spring, Great Spring and the Big Spring, a stone wall was built around the public spring in 1934 as a Civil Works Administration project, Doyle said.

Town officials applied for the CWA project in 1933 to keep the spring sanitary because cows would drink from it and runoff from backyard livestock could make its way to the water, she said.

The wall is now dirty and some of it is covered with overgrown vegetation.

Fulk said the town is trying to get a permit from the Maryland Department of Environment in time to clean up the spring for the anniversary event.

Town officials want to power wash and possibly whitewash the stone wall, and remove overgrowth from the area.

The state environmental department, which works to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed, needs to grant permission for the work, she said.

Fulk said that when she was a child the spring was crystal clear and water flowed freely.

The stream from the spring follows the wall and then goes underground, traveling under Big Spring Alley behind the properties along Main Street and down through Antietam Street, splitting so water ends up in Antietam Creek and in the Town Pond off Church Street, Fulk said.

East of Church Street, up Shepherdstown Pike in Mountain View Cemetery on the hill, rests the town’s founder, Joseph Chapline, and some of his family members.

Chapline and some of his family were originally buried on his family plantation, but were moved to Mountain View Cemetery around 1892, Beeler said. Chapline died in 1769. He was around 60 years old.

“He accomplished a lot in what little time he had,” Beeler said.

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