A Railroad Runs Through It, A River Beside It


April 03, 1994|By WAYNE HARDIN

A CSX freight train, maybe 100 cars long, click-clacks slowly through Sandy Hook, headed for a mountain tunnel. On one side of the tracks, a black cat suns itself on a front-porch roof. On the other side, a woman runner lopes in the cold on the C&O Canal towpath. Beyond her, the Potomac River runs white over the rocks.

Along Sandy Hook Road, the village's main street, the houses stretch out on a line toward the school-bus turnaround. Mostly of stone and closely placed, the houses are virtually all on the same side of the narrow sunken road. Cars here cling to the edge of the railroad bed or are parked in their owners' front yards.

In Sandy Hook Grocery, owner Alice Mills and her son Jerry, 17, have no customers.

"I've lived here since I was 14," says Mrs. Mills, 50. "This is a nice, quiet place."

And it is quiet this afternoon in Sandy Hook, an unincorporated Maryland river and railroad town of 100 to 150 people across the Potomac from the more celebrated Harpers Ferry, W.Va. To travelers heading to historic Harpers Ferry over the U.S. 340 bridge, Sandy Hook below is barely visible.

A "forgotten corner [or end] of Washington County" was a favorite description of the town in the 1980s in newspaper articles about Sandy Hook's problems with sanitation.

Although the residents are proud of their little corner of the state, they feel that outsiders sometimes see the town as downtrodden. "Sometimes you don't read about Sandy Hook unless it's bad," says Bobby Wentzell, 38. "To me, that's not right."

The stories written about the town in the last decade centered on the lack of indoor plumbing for many families. Long after outhouses had faded from view in most areas of the state, many remained in Sandy Hook. Everybody didn't get indoor toilets until last summer.

Sandy Hook now has public water and sewerage. "It's LTC wonderful," says Ramona Deener, 51, a resident all her life.

During the process of getting a sewage treatment plant -- put in by the Washington County Sanitary District -- Sandy Hook found itself studied in unusual detail by planners.

"Sandy Hook had problems," says Vicky Malott, a sanitary district official who was project manager here for two years. "The community had only a handful of wells. Many people used water from spring-fed mountain streams going to the Potomac. Washtubs caught water and a screen kept out debris. At one time, there were 17 outhouses."

The sanitation officials did door-to-door surveys of households. "The median income is $13,000," says Ms. Malott. "There's a wide variety of occupations, mostly in construction, and a large number of retired people. Many families have been there for generations."

Founded in 1832 with completion of the C&O Canal, Sandy Hook now has 58 homes, a hostel, a church, the grocery store, a water tower, the treatment plant and that linear layout with most houses facing the same way.

Says Edna Greenwalt, 67, Bobby Wentzell's mother and a resident for 45 years: "Sometimes, when people ask directions to my house, they'll say, 'Which side of the road is that?' I say, 'There's only one side.' "

The nonprofit Harpers Ferry Youth Hostel, around since the early 1960s, lends another unique touch to Sandy Hook, even if it doesn't carry the town's name. On a bluff at the upper end of town in what once was an auction house, it is one of the two or three structures on the river side of Sandy Hook Road.

"We have a dining area, kitchen, library and two dormitories, one for males and one for females," says Jeanne Thomas, who manages the hostel with her husband, Harry. "It's one of the few hostels in rural America people can get to by Amtrak."

Amtrak sends commuter trains through Sandy Hook mornings and evenings. A station borders the river in Harpers Ferry. Freight trains rumble through almost any time.

"Some don't understand how you can sleep with the trains," says Mrs. Deener, whose husband and father worked for the railroad. "I don't even notice."

Sandy Hook in winter is a little quieter than in summer, when fishing, rafting and canoeing on the Potomac River are popular with tourists. Hikers come through on the towpath, which carries the Appalachian Trail in that area.

"During summer, we have a lot of traffic," says Michael Whetzel, 36, an electrician who has lived 13 years in the town. "With the house so close to the road, you have to keep a close eye on the kids."

Sandy Hook residents are stayers. They may have been called downtrodden more than they liked but they realize that while those applying the label have moved on, Sandy Hook is still here.

"I'll tell you one thing," says Edna Greenwalt. "I'm ready to come back as soon as I leave."


NAME CHANGE: Sandy Hook, originally known as Keep Tryst, is said to have received its current name after a Teamster lost his horses in quicksand in the Potomac River.

CIVIL WAR: Before the Civil War, John Brown's two sons hid out in Sandy Hook awaiting the attack led by their father on the armory at Harpers Ferry. John Brown stayed at a farmhouse (still extant) six miles away. Nearby Maryland Heights also has Civil War history.

NO FLOODS: Sandy Hook is a river town but residents recall no flooding from the Potomac. The canal and railroad bed provide a barrier. Says resident Edna Greenwalt, "1936 is the worst I can remember on the river. I think the highest [the water] got was to the rails."

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