Hancock’s Town Spirit

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on December 26, 2004

A new spirit is afoot in Hancock, Md., born when the town reached down and yanked on its bootstraps.

Hancock first encountered trouble in the 1960s when it was bypassed by the interstate. That hurt Main Street businesses, and when London Fog—one of the town’s largest employers—closed in the early 1990s, matters looked grim for this tight-knit community of 1,725 in western Maryland.

“That was totally devastating to our community, a real challenge,” says Hancock’s energetic, four-term mayor Daniel A. Murphy. “We’ve worked to overcome adversity all along the way.”

Reviewing its strengths, Hancock found them in its history with the Western Maryland Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal. Both once brought commerce to town, but by the 1970s they were defunct relics. Today, they are bustling tourist attractions as the Western Maryland Rail Trail and the C&O Canal Park.

Hancock residents, with the guidance of the Western Maryland Rail Trail Citizens Advisory Committee, came together to help refurbish 20 miles of railroad right-of-way purchased in 1990 by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. A portion of the canal running through Hancock was reclaimed from decades of overgrowth and re-watered. Newly completed and well-tended trails along the canal and railbed along the Potomac River now draw hikers and bikers to the picturesque town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Hancock’s C&O Canal Visitor Center is on the east end of Main Street, with information about the 184.5-mile towpath running between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Md. In the center of town is a C&O Canal Park, with access to the towpath, rail trail, parking and historic markers.

“This rail trail has been a godsend for Hancock,” says Murphy, noting that last summer three major bicycling events rolled through town.

The spirit of working for the town permeates Hancock, from the VFW post raising $100,000 for a local veterans’ memorial, dedicated in 2000, to picnic pavilions erected by the Lion’s Club. The town council voted this year to build a park—named after Edward Joseph Hancock Jr., who operated a local ferry in the mid-1800s and gave the town its name—on property reclaimed from a flood-damaged residential area.

To bring more arts to the area, the Hancock Arts Council was formed in 2001. In its first few months, it organized the Hancock Winter Festival, which draws hundreds each February for an all-day snow-sculpting contest, along with music and food. The council has since sponsored dance and music events.

“This place is always a surprise,” says sculptor Sinclair Hamilton, who renovated a Main Street bank into an art studio. Hamilton recently designed two bronze sculptures to be added to Hancock’s veterans’ memorial.

Police Chief Donald Gossage is a self-taught grant writer who has secured more than $350,000 in state and federal funds for community crime control, prevention programs and events, including pool parties and “midnight madness” basketball games for the town’s youths. “There was not a lot for the teen-age kids to do in the evenings,” he says.

As rector of the 169-year-old St. Thomas’ Episcopal Parish, the Rev. F. Allan Weatherholt Jr. sees community involvement firsthand. “Hancock is a very caring community,” he says. “It’s a wonderful blend of history and tradition and a forward looking community.”

That history started with rough-and-tumble fur traders in the 1730s. George Washington surveyed the area. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson bombarded Hancock in 1862, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt vacationed at nearby Woodmont Lodge. In 2003, the town was added to Maryland’s historic Civil War Heritage Trails, with three kiosks describing Hancock’s Civil War history.

Lifelong Hancock resident Debbie Reed enjoys the new spirit in her hometown. She says she wouldn’t live anywhere else. “There’s so much more love in a small town.”

For more information on Hancock, log on to www.hancockmd.com.