Shepherdstown is one of the two earliest towns in West Virginia. On December 23, 1762, the Virginia General Assembly established Mecklenburg, as it was first called, and Romney. Shepherdstown claims primacy because Germans from Pennsylvania had established a settlement on the broad level plain about a mile upstream from Pack Horse Ford early in the eighteenth century. Steep bluffs on the Virginia side of the ford, a major early crossing of the Potomac River, precluded settlement there. By 1734 Thomas Shepherd had patented 222 acres, and by 1762 he had “laid off about fifty acres into lots and streets for a town, and hath disposed of many of the said lots.” Shepherd named the ninety-six-lot town to honor Charlotte of Mecklenburg, who had married George III in 1761. He also complimented the monarchy in naming four of Mecklenburg's principal streets: King, Queen, Duke, and Princess. Queen Street soon became known as “the German Street,” and over time, the name became official. In January 1798, the legislature, responding to a petition, enlarged the town's boundaries by taking it to the “water's edge of the Potowmac River,” and authorized a change of name to Shepherdstown.
By then, Shepherdstown could claim a number of firsts. Here, in 1786, James Rumsey conducted the first public demonstration of a steamboat. According to Henry Howe, Rumsey propelled his fifty-foot craft “against the current of the Potomac, at the rate of four or five miles an hour.” Late in 1790, the Potowmac Guardian, the first newspaper in what is now West Virginia, began publication. That same year, the town, along with many others, put in a bid to become the new capital of the United States. Shepherdstown, or Mecklenburg, accompanied its proposal with an offer of free land but lost to a site farther downstream on the Potomac.
James Rumsey's house was typical of Shepherdstown's early log structures. Henry Howe, who drew it, described it as “a small log-house, now standing near the town jail in the outskirts of the village.” During the Civil War, James Taylor also drew it, likely basing his sketch on Howe's, but he provided a fuller description:
Arriving on Duke Street … I found it to be a log structure of a single oblong room with an attic, which seemed in a fair state of preservation. The house was occupied by a family of poor whites. I questioned the head who could tell me nothing of its history, except that it had come to his ears in a vague way that long ago the building was occupied by a crazy boat builder.
Although Rumsey's cabin no longer survives, other early log structures, most now covered with clapboard, do. By 1794 the town had a brickyard, and the many late Georgian–early Federal brick structures built from then until c. 1820 still form Shepherdstown's most identifiable and prominent concentration of architectural resources.
Shepherdstown was Jefferson County's largest town in the 1820s, but Anne Royall was not impressed. Visiting in 1827, she noted that it was “very handsomely situated, but not so flourishing as Charles Town; the houses look old and going to decay.” Although Shepherdstown continued to eclipse Charles Town for another decade or two in population, nearby Harpers Ferry soon overtook both to become the county's largest antebellum urban center.
Even though Shepherdstown changed hands several times during the Civil War, it suffered less than its two rivals. A number of buildings—and all its churches save one—were commandeered to serve as hospitals after the Battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam. One of the bloodiest battles of any war, it was fought on Maryland soil, seven miles across the Potomac, in September 1862. Two years and one month later, James Taylor sketched Shepherdstown, showing it virtually as it appears now, although one of the churches he depicted has been replaced.
Shepherdstown got a second wind of prosperity after the Civil War when it served from 1866 to 1871 as the Jefferson County seat. After officials returned to Charles Town, the Town Hall, which had been enlarged to serve as the courthouse, began to house one of the new state's new normal schools, which would become Shepherd College. George Bagby, well-known Virginia humorist and lecturer, visiting in 1881 proclaimed the “place and population unchanged in a hundred years.” Sixty years later, the WPA guide pronounced: “Shepherds-town remains a compact community that has expanded little beyond the orderly plat made by Thomas Shepherd in 1762.” As these and other accounts tell, Shepherdstown slumbered peacefully throughout most of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1973 it became the state's first historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1986 the district's boundaries were expanded.
As Bagby noted in 1881, Shepherdstown's population has fluctuated little over the years. In 1827 Anne Royall counted “upwards of 1,000 inhabitants,” and in 1845 Henry Howe estimated 1,600. By 1970 the population stood at 1,688, but in 2000 it had receded to 803. Today Shepherdstown exists as a quintessential college town and a seemingly perfect amalgam of residential, ecclesiastical, commercial, and academic architecture. At a relatively safe distance from the Civil War attractions at Harpers Ferry and Antietam, it gets its share of tourists but has managed to accommodate them without losing its own identity or purpose. The major threat to its character is from the rapid development of outlying areas, as the tentacles of metropolitan Washington reach ever farther into the hinterlands.
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