by Lisa Schauer
Hancock Historical Society president Dan Murphy presented a program entitled “Hancock History – 300 years in the making” in the community room at War Memorial Library on Thursday evening, September 14.
Addressing a full house, Murphy regaled the audience with tales of the town’s tumultuous history from before the French and Indian War, through the Civil War, and into its pivotal role on the C&O Canal, and the National Pike, America’s first highway west.
“Hancock was a dangerous place to be back then,” said Murphy, describing a time of land grants and squatters arriving between 1756 and 1763, as military forts were built from Baltimore to Cumberland to protect white settlers from Indian attacks.
The town was named after Joseph Hancock, who operated the first ferry across the Potomac River, and was killed by Native Americans.
“Our roots are in the river,” said Murphy of the town’ s early economic development.
Fort Tonoloway was an early military fort, located near present-day Widmeyer Park, and was later replaced by nearby Fort Frederick, the location of the greatest massacre of the French and Indian War, when 98 white settlers were killed or kidnapped by Indians.
In 1828, ground broke on the 184-mile C&O Canal, and the race was on with the B&O Railroad, built in the 1830s. With two locks and an aqueduct, Hancock was then home to scores of canal workers from Ireland and Wales. When the paymaster made his rounds, locals knew to stay indoors as the town was taken over by brawling, drunken workers, according to Murphy.
Hancock also enjoyed economic prosperity as the largest town on the nation’s largest road at that time – the National Pike. The road west was planned by Thomas Jefferson in 1806 and completed in the 1820s.
The town held prominence as a center for trade, commerce, and hospitality on the National Pike, which led west to Cumberland and Wheeling.
“By 1840, we were the busiest town on the busiest road in the nation,” said Murphy.
Stagecoaches and cattle drives steadily came through Main Street at this time, stopping for supplies, repairs, taverns, saloons and lodging.
Hancock sat on a part of the National Pike called the Bank Road, now Route 40, which was known as “the road that built America.”
Murphy vividly described what would have been a turbulent stagecoach ride over Sideling Hill on a Conestoga wagon careening through on ten-foot wheels from Baltimore.
Hancock was famous for its hotels, including the Hotel Hancock, Bowles House -currently the C&O Canal NHP visitor’ s center -and the Barton House on the site of the old Murphy’s store on Main Street, where four presidents and Davy Crockett once stayed.
“We don’t know if George Washington slept here, but he certainly ate here,” said Murphy of Hancock residents’ John and Debbie Cohill’s current historic home.
There were also gamblers, taverns and ladies of the evening, said Murphy, projecting old photos of historic buildings, noteworthy homes, and prominent people of Hancock.
During the Civil War, Hancock was an important location on the Underground Railroad, offering a safe haven for so-called “contraband,” enslaved people traveling from the south toward freedom in Pennsylvania. Since the town sits at the narrowest part of Maryland, it was a logical spot to journey through, and a main route for the Underground Railroad came right though Hancock.
In 1862, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson stayed in Bath, Virginia, modern-day Berkeley Springs, and planned to seize Uniontown Hancock by bombarding the town with shells from across the Potomac River.
The attack was short-lived, and no one perished, as the weather turned bitter cold, and Jackson was informed by a Union officer that Hancock was “seccish” – filled with Confederate sympathizers being so close to the Mason-Dixon line.
Into the 20th Century, notables including Babe Ruth, Amos & Andy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Hancock to stay and hunt at the luxurious Woodmont Rod & Gun Club.
The presentation wrapped up with a look at the apple orchards, labels and advertisements from the mid-century, when Hancock was known as “America’s fruit basket.”
Murphy encouraged attendees to go to the Hancock Museum at 126 West High Street to learn more about the town’s rich history.