Hagerstown, Maryland

Railroad Station, Hagerstown, 1937
Railroad Station, Hagerstown
Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division

As Maryland’s gatewayto the west, Hagerstown (population 2000 36, 687)1 is known as the “Hub City,” a crossroads for industry and culture. Hagerstown is the county seat of Washington County and the largest city in Western Maryland. 

Founding and Early Years
In 1739, Jonathan Hager, a German immigrant from Pennsylvania, purchased 200 acres of land in Maryland.  Located in the valley between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghany mountains, this property was known as Hager’s Fancy.2  In 1762, Hager founded the town of Elizabethtown which he named after his wife, Elizabeth Kershner, who he had married in 1740.3  In 1776, the town became the county seat of newly created Washington County, winning this distinction over nearby Funkstown.4   The City Council decided to change the name of the town to Hagerstown in 1813 because this name had gained popular usage, and the state legislature officially passed an act to change the town’s name to Hagerstown in 1814.5

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Hagerstown prospered. Early industries included mills and earthenware production.6  A small statehouse, which also housed the town market on the lower level, was constructed in the town square. A tinsmith named Benjamin Heiskell crafted a weathervane for the statehouse in 1769.  The weathervane, crafted in the shape of a Hessian soldier, later became the symbol for the city of Hagerstown.7  German language prevailed over English in daily interactions as well as in town publications because many of the early settlers to the area were of German descent.8 John Gruber began publishing his famous farmer’s almanac in German in 1797.  The almanac would later be known for its accuracy in predicting the weather.9  

Hagerstown became an important stopping point for traders, stagecoaches, and all those traveling to the east or to the west, especially after the National Pike was built and surfaced the 1820s.  Later, railroads and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal began to provide a better means for transporting goods and people.  Hagerstown eventually served as a hub for the Baltimore and Ohio, the Western Maryland, the Pennsylvania Central, and the Norfolk and Western railroads.10
The Civil War
In the past, Hagerstown had an active slave market in the square and kept runaway slaves in the Jonathan Street jail. In 1847, free blacks organized an uprising in an attempt to free fugitive slaves.11  In general, however, slaves and free blacks made up a very small portion of the population and very few citizens of Hagerstown could afford to keep slaves. Unlike their counterparts in Maryland’s eastern counties, Western Marylanders were more inclined to oppose slavery. During the national debate over the Missouri Compromise, town citizens sent an antislavery petition to the General Assembly.12  Maryland’s status as a border state and Washington County’s proximity to Virginia and Pennsylvania created and heightened divisions within Hagerstown.

With Antietam, Gettysburg, and Sharpsburg close by, Hagerstown witnessed much military action and endured several occupations by Confederate troops during the Civil War.  The Ransom of Hagerstown on July 6, 1864, continues to be one of Hagerstown’s most well-known historical events.  In retribution for lands destroyed and sacked in Virginia by Federal Troops, Confederate General Jubal Early sent Brigadier General John McCausland into Hagerstown to impose a ransom of $20,000 and a large amount of supplies.  In order to save the town from burning, three banks in Hagerstown provided the funds, while shopkeepers and citizens of the town relinquished clothing and other goods.13  Although a witness to wartime adversity, Hagerstown survived and continued to develop ties with railroads and industry. 

The Twentieth Century
After the Civil War and into the early twentieth century, Hagerstown experienced an economic boom with innovations in farming, transportation, and industry.  Local farmers and fruit growers began using modern farm equipment.14  In 1896, the Hagerstown Railway Company built the basis for a street railway system within the town which lasted until 1947.15  The late nineteenth century also saw the founding of the M. P. Moller Organ Works in Hagerstown, the largest producer of pipe organs in the world at that time.16  Moller also began manufacturing automobiles in Hagerstown, as did the Pope Manufacturing Company.17  The main branch of the Washington County Free Library opened in 1901, as the first incorporated county-wide library in the country.  Mary Lemist Titcomb, the town librarian, created the nation’s first bookmobile in 1904 in order to make books more accessible to the predominantly rural community.18

By 1926, A. H. Kreider and Louis Reisner began manufacturing airplanes in Hagerstown.  Their company would eventually become Fairchild Aircraft.  By the 1940s, the Fairchild Aircraft plant increased employment in Hagerstown as the demand for airplanes increased, especially as the United States entered World War II. Women from Hagerstown worked at the plant as well as in other local factories.19  After the war, Hagerstown became sister cities with Wesel, Germany as a demonstration of peace between the two countries.20 As the twentieth century wore on, downtown Hagerstown slowly lost its status as the focal point of the town, as shopping and outlet malls began to be built on the city’s outskirts.

The Twenty-First Century
Today Hagerstown is a city very much in touch with its past, while still looking toward the future.  The beautiful Hagerstown City Park includes the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and the Jonathan Hager House Museum.  The Maryland Theater, built in 1915 and surviving a fire in 1974, remains a center for culture and the performing arts.21  The town square and downtown are currently experiencing an economic renewal. The ongoing sister city program and the Augustoberfest celebration, held every summer, demonstrate Hagerstown’s continued ties to its German heritage.


1. U. S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census of the United States, (Click on “State by Place” and scroll down to Hagerstown), (Accessed 7/10/2006).

2. John H. Nelson, “What God Does is Well Done” The Jonathan Hager Files (Hagerstown: HBP Printing, 1997): 12.

3. Ibid, 27.

4. Mary Vernon Mish.  Jonathan Hager, Founder (Hagerstown: HBP Printing, 1937): 31.

5. Nelson, 22.

6. Washington County Free Library, Reference Staff, Historical Materials on Washington County Maryland, (Hagerstown, September 1975):  66.

7. Washington County Free Library, Historical Sketch of Hagerstown and Washington County   (Accessed 6/14/2006.)

8. Robert J. Brugger, Maryland, A Middle Temperament 1634-1980 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988): 154-155.

9. A. Vernon Davis, Early Hagerstown as Seen by John Gruber (Hagerstown: Venture Enterprises, 1976): 4.

10. Hagerstown Convention Visitors Bureau, Hagerstown and Washington County: The Crossroads of the Civil War,  (Accessed 7/10/2006)

11. Hagerstown Convention Visitors Bureau. African-American Heritage Guide, Washington County, Maryland,   Accessed 7/12/2006; and Brugger, 267.

12. Brugger, 210.

13. Ibid, 295-296

14. Ibid, 328.

15. Mary H. Rubin, Hagerstown (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001): 43.

16. Ibid, 59.

17. Ibid, 57-58.

18. Deena Marcum, Good Books in a Country Home: The Public Library as Cultural Force in Hagerstown, Maryland, 1878-1920 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994): 87, 103.

19. Brugger, 529.

20. City of Hagerstown, Augustoberfest,  (Accessed 6/14/2006)

21. Rubin, 111.

—Elizabeth McAllister
University of Maryland

Further Reading

Brugger, Robert J. Maryland, A Middle Temperament 1634-1980. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University in Association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Rubin, Mary H. Hagerstown. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.

Additional Websites

City of Hagerstown.

Hagerstown Convention Visitors Bureau.

Washington County Free Library Historic Newspaper Indexing Project.

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