Monterey Pass and the Great Wagon Road

Monterey Pass is full of history. Many will associate this mountain gap for the name given to a major Civil War battle that was fought during the night of July 4-5, 1863. While it’s true that the Civil War was a major historical event, it wasn’t the only historical event to take place in this area. Years after the battle, this area was home to hundreds of inner city bureaucrats which led to the Resort era.

Mining and the railroad were part of the huge industrial revolution that led to the area’s wealth, but declined during the Great Depression. Soldiers would again visit the area during World War Two, as a military camp was established by the U.S. Army at Camp Ritchie. But with all of this, there is a forgotten era that relates to Monterey Pass. That era begins just a few years before the French and Indian War.

Monterey Pass and Fairfield Gap were known by many names in Colonial America. On period maps, the Monterey Pass area was known as the South Gap, Nichols’ Gap, Nicholson’s Gap, and by the 1770’s as Willoughby Gap. It wasn’t until toward the early 1800’s that the name changed to Monterey Pass. Fairfield Gap was most likely given the name after the founding of that town.1

Monterey Pass is situated on South Mountain. South Mountain is a mountain range that is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, although the extension of the Blue Ridge Mountain ends at Boonsboro, Maryland and it known today as Elk Ridge. The mountain itself spans seventy-one miles begging near Hillsboro, Virginia known as Short Hill Mountain. From there, Short Hill rises to the south side of the Potomac River. On the north side of the Potomac River, it rises in Maryland, continues into Pennsylvania, and ends near the Susquehanna River between Carlisle and Dillsburg. This portion of the mountain is called South Mountain.2

During colonial period, anything west of the mountain ridge was one vast wilderness with the exception of some forts and stockades to protect settlers and some small settlements. The mountain is full of natural resources. Hemlocks, maple, beech, basswood, chestnut oak, northern red oak, northern pine, birch, and poplar were the basic types of trees that grew in the forest.3

Aside from trees, South Mountain had an abundance of wildlife and fish to sustain life on the frontier. Crystal clear springs and creeks such as Toms Creek and Antietam Creek were given life from the mountain.

West of South Mountain is the Cumberland Valley. Then, it was known as the Great Valley. The area was open for immigration for settlements after treaty cessions and purchases from the Indians in 1764, ending the French and Indian War. Prior to then, two main roads were created to allow settlers to flow into the valley.4

In 1744, a treaty between the English colonists and the Indians gave the white men control of the road for the first time. By 1765 the Great Wagon Road was cleared all along it way enough to hold horse drawn vehicles and by 1775, the road stretched 700 miles.

With immigrants flooding the new world, land was becoming scare. As a result, in the mid 1740’s, the Scots-Irish began looking for newer and less costly means of land to farm upon. By the mid 1700’s, Pennsylvania Germans would also migrate. West of South Mountain and areas to the south in what we call Appalachia was rich with fertile farmland, but it was also a rough place to live.

In February 1747, people petitioned the Lancaster county government for a road to be laid out ‘from the Conocheague through the gap in the mountains of Lancaster.’ Known as the Black’s Gap Road. A second road was surveyed that linked the headwaters of the Antietam Creek with York and Lancaster and became known as the Nichols’ Gap Road. This road branched off the Black’s Gap Road near New Oxford.  It paralleled Route 116 from Gettysburg to Monterey Pass.5

The Jefferson and Fry Map, 1755, LOC.

This road began in Philadelphia and would encompass the modern day towns of Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, Dillsburg, Gettysburg, Fairfield, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, and Williamsport before entering into West Virginia then Virginia. Other forks of the Great Wagon Road would also link at Williamsport, MD. At Harrisburg, a road led to Carlisle, Shippensburg to Chambersburg and to Williamsport. From there, these roads converged and would lead travelers to North Carolina. Later the wagon road was extended to South Carolina and Georgia. Today, we call this area Appalachia.

The road itself was not very wide. The first settlers more or less walked along side of pack horses that contained all the family’s valuable items. In some places, the path was only three to four feet wide. Later, oxen would pull two wheeled carts loaded with supplies. Over time, as thousands moved upon the road, it became wide enough for wagons to transverse through. The Pennsylvania- Germans built wagons (Conestogas) at their largest would be twenty-six feet long, eleven feet high and some could bear loads up to ten tons. It took five or six pairs of horses to pull them.

W. Scull, 1770. Hamiltonban Township, Adams County, PA.

The fastest loaded wagon could go about five miles a day. The trip took a minimum of two months. Wagons broke down, rivers flooded, supplies gave out, and there was sickness but no doctors. Wagons were repaired, floods ceded, the wilderness supplied, and the sick were buried or stumbled on.6

The Great Wagon Road in our area featured many taverns. The sounds of hooves, wagon wheels, chains and supplies jolting along this road were common sounds. At night, many immigrants headed to Appalachia bedded down waiting for dawn to keep moving to a new life that awaited them.

In 1787, this great road became and official Pennsylvania highway and was improved upon. Work parties were sent out to make repairs when the road was damaged and kept traffic flowing.

  1. Looking at various period maps, one can easily trace the renaming of our mountain pass. The 1755 Jefferson-Fry Map, you can study the road that came through our area.
  2. South Mountain is associated as being part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but people often get that confused with the actual Blue Ridge Mountain itself.
  3. Pennsylvania DCNR has a trail system along Route 16 near Rouzerville and Monterey Pass Battlefield that is called the Bicentennial Trail. It features markers that tell about the trees and their uses during the 1700’s. This trail explains what types of trees there were present on South Mountain during this period.
  4. There were upwards to a population of about 3,000 in the Cumberland Valley prior to the French and Indian War. Many of these settlers were illegally living on Indian lands. During the F&I War, the population dropped to 300 as Indian raids occurred and were often bloody.
  5. Adams County Bicentennial Tidbits, July, 1999
  7. Ibid
Jefferson-Fry Map, 1755 LOC
W. Scull, 1770. Hamiltonban Township, Adams County, PA.

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