A Brief History of Shepherdstown


Colonial settlers began their migration into the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s. Many crossed the Potomac River at Pack Horse Ford, about one mile downriver from the modern site of Shepherdstown. There, Native American tribes once clashed at what was then part of the Warrior Path. Later it was known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, a major north-south connector of colonial and early America.

The colony of Virginia began issuing Valley land grants in the 1730s, but settlers in the area of what became Shepherdstown had arrived earlier, perhaps before 1720. In 1734, Thomas Shepherd took up a tract of 222 acres on the south side of the Potomac, along the Falling Spring Branch, now known as Town Run. For a brief time the settlement there was called Pack Horse Ford or Swearingen’s Ferry. In 1762, the Virginia Assembly established the town as Mecklenburg. As the sole trustee, Shepherd retained chief responsibility for its government. Later 18th century enactments granted self government, enlarged the town limits, and changed the name to Shepherd’s Town. After the Civil War, the name became Shepherdstown.

More than twenty natural springs feed Town Run before it enters the south end of town. The Run rarely floods and never runs dry; it meanders through backyards, under houses, across alleys and beneath five streets before it rushes downward to the Potomac. To early settlers the stream provided water for domestic purposes and fire fighting as well as fish for the table. Most important, it powered the shops of millers, tanners, potters, smiths, and other artisans. As a result, on the eve of the American Revolution, the town thrived. A busy waterfront on the Potomac and workshops on Town Run complemented growing farms beyond the town. Mecklenburg had grown to 1,000 inhabitants and had a ferry crossing the river to Maryland. Being near Pack Horse Ford gave the town a strategic location on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. With the official blessing of the Virginia Assembly, Mecklenburg residents celebrated two annual fairs “for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandise whatsoever.”

In the summer of 1775, the Continental Congress issued a call for volunteer rifle companies from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to come to the aid of embattled Boston. Captain Hugh Stephenson filled the ranks of his 100 man company from around Mecklenburg. The troops departed from Morgan’s Spring, about one-half mile south of the town limits, in mid-July. This famous “Beeline March” covered 600 miles in 24 days as the marchers hastened to help fellow colonists threatened by George III’s Redcoats.

The town contributed liberally to the cause of American independence. Its cemeteries contain at least thirty-eight Revolutionary veterans, a measure of the town’s military involvement. Citizens also supplied clothing, wagons, saddles, and other items for military use.

After the Revolution, the little river town continued to flourish, though the War left many widows and orphans, and some veterans moved west to take up land grants. On December 3, 1787, a historic moment during the critical days of the early republic, James Rumsey conducted a successful trial of a steamboat. A large gathering of townspeople and notables witnessed the event from the banks and bluffs of the Potomac River. A few months later, Abraham Shepherd provided riverfront land and facilities for the Mecklenburg Warehouse, a tobacco inspection facility approved by the Virginia General Assembly in 1788.

In addition to Rumsey’s ingenuity, Shepherdstown’s early records reveal impressive examples of wit, learning, and culture. West Virginia’s first newspaper (The Potowmak Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser) and first book (The Christian Panoply) were published here in the 1790s. A number of schools had been started before the Revolution, including an English school and a German school, and the first academy in what became West Virginia opened shortly afterwards. As late 19th century educator Joseph McMurran would say, Shepherdstown “had its classical academies, its female seminaries, its boys’ schools, and its girls’ schools–from time immemorial.” The free school movement in Virginia led to the establishment of two free schools in town in 1848. One still stands on the southeast corner of Princess and New Streets. The first school for black students is believed to have operated from c.1867 to 1883 on Brown’s Alley, between W High and W German streets.

Because Shepherdstown provided a convenient stopover for wagon masters and other sojourners, many taverns and inns sprang up. In addition to food, drink, and lodging, these establishments provided horse racing, gambling, cockfighting, and other entertainments for the weary travelers and interested townspeople. Possibly in one of the taverns, on July 12, 1791, “M’Grath’s traveling company of comedians” presented Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, the first American comedy, just four years after it had opened in New York. Taverns also provided places for local government and organizations to meet.

The 1790s brought many changes. The first post office in what became West Virginia opened in 1793. By 1794 Welsh’s brickyard operated along Town Run on the south side of Washington Street between Princess and King. Because of the brickyard, between 1790 and 1840, many of the wooden structures of pioneer Shepherdstown were torn down to make way for brick homes and shops favored by a new generation of businessmen and industrialists. Houses for the brickyard workers, known as Fossett Row, still stand on W High Street. African American workers, both slave and free, lived at each end of German Street, Little Philadelphia on the west and Angel Hill on the east. By 1857, nearly 100 slaves lived in Shepherdstown.

The arrival of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the 1830s and the opening of a Shepherdstown lock eased connections downriver to Georgetown, lowering the cost of shipping agricultural products to the seaboard. Later the canal also opened the way west to Cumberland, Maryland. The construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad contemporaneously with the canal, however, soon made the canal obsolete and prevented its planned projection into western markets. The canal passed its peak in the 1870s. Limited to seasonal operation and damaged periodically by floods, it continued into the 1920s, primarily as a hauler of coal from the Cumberland coalfields.

In 1879 the Shenandoah Valley Railroad arrived in Shepherdstown, introducing a powerful new dynamic of development that turned the town away from the river. The Norfolk and Western succeeded the Shenandoah Valley in 1891. Over the course of the mid-19th century, western wheat shipped by rail to eastern markets brought to an end local wheat cultivation. Apple growing became a new specialty of the area.

The coming of canals and railroads in the 19th century lowered shipping costs and brought the nation closer, but the Civil War tore it apart. As a border town on the Potomac shaped by the culture and institutions of the Old South, including slavery, Shepherdstown faced trying and tragic times during the War. In October, 1859, Shepherdstown’s Hamtramck Guard joined units dispatched to Harpers Ferry to help subdue John Brown’s raid on the Federal Arsenal. At the outbreak of the War, this group became Company B, 2nd Virginia Infantry, Army of the Confederacy, part of the famous Stonewall Brigade. Many local young men fought on the side of the Confederacy, and some fought for the Union. Families and neighbors divided, and slaves anticipated a new day.

After the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s infantry retreated south across the Potomac at Pack Horse Ford. In one of the most consequential moments of its history, Shepherdstown provided care for 5000 to 8000 casualties. The wounded and dying filled nearly every house, building, church, alley, and street. The Battle of Shepherdstown, September 19-20, added to the carnage, leaving 162 men dead, including 63 Confederates and 99 Federals and many additional wounded. Most of the Confederate dead were buried on private property that became Elmwood Cemetery in 1868. Elmwood’s hallowed ground contains the graves of 285 Confederate veterans.

In the post war period, Shepherdstown served as the county seat because of changing political fortunes and war damage to the courthouse in Charles Town. A large building on the northeast corner of German and King Streets provided to the town by Rezin Davis Shepherd as a town hall (and now known as McMurran Hall) housed the courthouse until, in 1871, Charles Town political forces succeeded in restoring the county seat to its former site.

Though Shepherdstown lost the county seat, it found a new future as a college town, a role in keeping with its long-standing devotion to education. In 1872 Rezin Shepherd’s town hall building was chartered as a Classic and Scientific Institute. Soon thereafter trustees leased it to the state to house Shepherd State Normal School (the general term in those days for teaching colleges). At first Shepherd provided primarily secondary education, but gradually collegiate courses were added. From this seed Shepherd University grew. From its beginning, the school helped shape the town, providing educational and employment opportunities and cultural attractions. Today, the East Campus occupies about one-third of the town proper, and the West Campus takes up a large area just northwest of the corporate limits.

Shepherdstown has attracted national attention from time to time since the Civil War. In 1900 a large and enthusiastic annual fair at Morgan’s Grove welcomed Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan with “deafening applause,” according to the New York Times, but he lost the election to William McKinley. A hundred years later, President Bill Clinton chose Shepherdstown as the site where he hosted peace talks between Israel and Syria. During the several days of the conference, the president, members of foreign delegations, and an extensive international press corps took time from the deliberations to stroll German Street. Delighted townspeople, many of whom hung peace signs in their windows, welcomed the guests.

Most of the town has been designated as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. From time to time (notably in 1912) fire destroyed important buildings, but the rows of 18th and early 19th century houses remain remarkably intact, likely the best-preserved assemblage of buildings of this vintage in the state. The many fine homes and buildings as well as surviving examples of humbler dwellings reflect Shepherdstown’s varied and distinguished history in architecture, education, religion, transportation, politics, and commerce.

In the 1920s and afterwards, Shepherdstown’s growth took place beyond the historic district, reflecting both the mature nature of the town and the impact of the automobile age, which enabled people to live further from commercial centers. In 1924 the C&O Canal closed, and the state road commission built a new road through the town, signaling the arrival of the Good Roads Movement and the advance of the automobile. The canal enjoyed something of a 20th century renaissance after it became the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in 1971.

During the early automobile age, the town no longer was the important stopover site it had been during its earlier days. As the proverbial sleepy college town surrounded by farms and orchards, Shepherdstown maintained its rich heritage but lacked the wealth to sweep away the old buildings, as happened in so many towns and cities. The “Boom” of the 1920s took place just beyond the town’s southern boundary. New growth in later decades followed roads radiating from the downtown district.

Today’s Shepherdstown retains the ambiance of an earlier time, but local folks are not content to live in a museum. They make the most of the town’s historic heritage, preserving the old buildings by adapting them to new uses, including many shops, restaurants, and venues for artists, craftsmen, and musicians. Shepherd University’s rich program of cultural events, including an innovative summer festival of contemporary plays, adds to the attraction that makes the town a tourist destination.


Heading west towards Martinsburg from the historic district is Route 45. Two recently restored historic cemeteries can be found to the right leaving the district. North of the west end of High Street, Rose Hill, an African American cemetery, dates to 1875. Just west of Rose Hill is the Catholic cemetery. Here are buried many Irish Catholic workers who died in a cholera outbreak in 1833-34 while building the C&O Canal. Few tombstones remain.

Along Route 45 West much change occurred in the last 50 years with new housing developments, service stations, a shopping center, a motel, banks, and a new fire hall.

Intersecting Route 45 and West German Street, Route 480 North leads directly to Shepherd Grade Road or to the James Rumsey Bridge and across the Potomac River into Maryland. On the Maryland side to the left is Ferry Hill, the former home of Henry Kyd Douglas of I Rode with Stonewall fame. To the right is the entrance to the C&O Canal National Park. Further along are Sharpsburg and the Antietam National Battlefield Park. On Shepherd Grade Road impressive homes of some of the town’s founders and early benefactors remain, including Bellevue, Wild Goose, and Spring Hill Farm, formerly known as Maple Shade. Off this road also is the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center.

Route 480 South to Kearneysville also passes rich farm lands, historic sites, and modern changes. These include “The Boom,” the residential area that developed on Shepherdstown’s south side between the wars; Elmwood Cemetery (including a marker to commemorate the nearby gathering of troops for the Beeline March to Boston in 1775); Morgan’s Grove Park, site of many town celebrations and picnics; Civil War skirmishing areas; historic homes; and new residential areas of the last half century. Among the historic homes near town is Rosebrake, home of the poet and historian, Danske Dandridge, who wrote Historic Shepherdstown.

Continuing east beyond the town, German Street becomes River Road and leads to the Cement Mill and Pack Horse Ford, sites important in the early history of the town and in the Civil War Battle of Shepherdstown. Route 230 South, turning off of East German Street, leads to other historic Jefferson County towns, Harpers Ferry and Charles Town.