Local History


Stay up-to-date with our latest news and learn more about local history!

June 17, 2024

Railroads, whiskey and moonlight: Meet ‘Snap’ McCoy, Hagerstown’s prolific moonshiner

Article Author: Abigail Koontz (This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail July, 2024) While American gangsters Al Capone and Bugs Moran were terrorizing Chicago, over 631 miles away in Washington County, local moonshiner Harry “Snap” McCoy was busy distilling and selling illegal liquor in Hagerstown and the surrounding communities. McCoy’s story captures the turbulent years of Prohibition and the history of moonshiners active in Washington County during that time. McCoy was born Jan. 7, 1870, to blacksmith Elbert McCoy and Emma (Ardinger) of Williamsport. In 1878, Elbert died of tuberculosis, leaving Emma to care for five children. McCoy’s childhood in Williamsport was a bustling, novel one. The Cumberland Valley Railroad reached the outskirts of Williamsport in 1872. The following year, the Western Maryland Railroad ran directly into Williamsport, connecting to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The railroad had a profound effect on McCoy. Although he only completed the fourth grade, by age 30 he worked as a conductor for the WMRR in Williamsport. A 1906 photograph in the Washington County Historical Society collection captures McCoy posing for the camera beside his friend, Sam McClannahan, at the train station. An oncoming train is visible just over their shoulders. In January 1919, […]
May 21, 2024

The Updegraffs wore a lot of hats — and manufactured most of them

Article Author: Abigail Koontz (This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail May, 2024) Hats have long fulfilled many roles, from functionality to symbols of self-expression and social status. One iconic hat of the last two centuries is the top hat. Two 19th-century silk top hats in the Washington County Historical Society’s collection offer glimpses into early local hat manufacturers — particularly the hatter George Updegraff. When top hats emerged in the 1790s, descending from earlier styles like the 17th century Pilgrim hat, they were made from felted beaver fur. Beaver felt top hats were initially expensive status symbols, but they were also functional, as beaver fur shed water. Beaver fur was so popular the European beaver population had been depleted by the mid-1600s. French fur traders sought beaver pelts in North America, trading with native populations for furs or hunting down beavers along rivers. Trappers moved further west, decimating beaver populations and spreading malaria through native populations, until reaching California by the 1820s. As pelts flooded American markets, the prevalence of American beaver felt top hats grew, influenced by European fashions. Washington County was no exception. On Aug. 12, 1823, the Maryland Herald announced that the hat manufacturing firm, Updegraff […]
April 25, 2024

When ‘thieving scoundrels’ stole their horses, these locals organized to find them.

Article Author: Abigail Koontz (This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail April, 2024) The American West between from 1865 to 1895 is often painted as the untamed, lawless domain of bandits and cowboys. But did you know that Western Maryland had its own bandits during that time? Across Washington County, residents of local towns, villages and farms were plagued by the relentless and crafty schemes of horse thieves. Western Maryland in the early 19th century saw the emergence of turnpikes, railroads and canals, but the most common means of transportation was by foot, horse or horse-drawn transport. Horsepower touched many aspects of daily life, from individual transport to income. Horses pulled barges, fire engines, mail coaches, farm equipment and hearses; they hauled resources and powered wars. Because horses were such a necessity, thieves saw a lucrative opportunity, especially in areas like Washington County that still were part of the frontier. Between 1790 and 1804, Washington County newspapers such as The Washington Spy and its successor, The Maryland Herald and Elizabeth-Town Advertiser, published more than 110 notices of horse theft (not counting lost horses). Victims during this time offered a range of monetary rewards for their horses and the capture of […]
March 12, 2024

The summer of ’64 brought grief to the Hall family. A letter between sisters sums it up

Article Author: Abigail Koontz (This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail March, 2024) The summer of 1864 was a tumultuous one for the United States, caught in the throes of the Civil War. The Federal Army employed more aggressive tactics in the South — such as burning private homes and property — and the Confederacy was losing ground. Locally, the summer of 1864 irrevocably altered the life of 19-year-old Hagerstown resident Sarah Bell (Hall) Matthews, who witnessed the Ransom of Hagerstown and the aftermath of the Burning of Chambersburg. Sarah Bell Hall was born in Hagerstown on Oct. 6, 1845, to William Hall, a master machinist, and Elizabeth (Noel) Hall. Sarah’s parents had moved to Hagerstown from Pennsylvania by the early 1840s; they had at least seven children together. On May 30, 1864, the Halls received terrible news. Their oldest son, Noel, a 22-year-old private in Company K, 12th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, had died from wounds received at the Battle of the Wilderness in early May. Noel’s body was transported home from Virginia and buried in Rose Hill Cemetery. Sarah had lost her brother, but soon she lost the presence of her older sister, Kate, who married Nathan Wright […]