The Little family’s role in Hancock life began with their departure from County Cavan in central Ireland in the mid-1830s and arrival in Maryland as the C&O Canal opened the area to major growth.
April 1839 brought about the opening of the canal to Hancock. The National Pike had already placed Hancock along a major transportation route.
There were opportunities for skilled laborers, boatmen and tradesmen all along the road and canal routes. Many of those workers came to the America from other countries, including the Littles of Ireland.
In his extensive 2011 history of the Little family in Hancock, C&O Canal Association volunteer William Bauman writes that by the time Civil War battles reached the Hancock area, Hancock was a town of 700 people “considered one of the more busting ports along the waterway.”
By 1862, when Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson occupied Bath, Va. across the Potomac River and Hancock was shelled by artillery, both Patrick and Thomas Little owned enough property in Hancock to claim damages from the incident. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, damaged in the skirmish, made a claim of damage of more than $2,000, Bauman found in his research. Thomas Little claimed his property – possibly one of two canal boats or his land property – has sustained $85 worth of damage and Patrick Little filed a claim for $27.25.
Just three years after the battle, Thomas Little bought a second canal boat, the General Grant. According to land records, he continued to buy up lots in Hancock, along the north side of Main Street, and then later a parcel that was bounded by the canal on one side and Little Tonoloway Creek on another.
By 1872, Thomas Little had bought a third canal boat – the Morning Sun – from Frederick Mertens, along with 10 horse mules and a black mare mule. He financed the boat and mules and equipment for his three boats by taking constant trips from Cumberland to Georgetown on the canal at a rate of $50 per trip.
Other Littles in Hancock had canal boats registered in their name. William, son of Patrick, bought the C.H. Dalton for $1,900. According to Bauman’s research, the crafts Laura S., J.B. Delaplane, J.P. Broderick, Annie, Three Sisters, W.A. Smoot and the George W. Barrett were all canal boats belonging to different branches of the Little family.
Philip T. “P.T.” Little kept active in boating through the end of the 1870’s, when he branched out into the merchant business.
“He began converting an old warehouse on the canal into a store. Here, by strict attention to business and unremitting efforts to please his patrons, he built up an extensive trade,” Bauman wrote in his family history.
Little carried dry goods, notions and coal, hauled from the B&O Railroad across the river.
A ferry, utilizing a cable, could pull the coal across the river. A road culvert ran under the canal, letting a wagonload of coal pass under to reach the store.
An early store ledger from 1879 shows that men from around the area brought bark to the store to be weighed for use at the local tannery.
His operation grew, and he continued to add canal boats to his family’s operation.
There was no doubt the Irish-born Littles were an important part of Hancock’s business world.
In January 1894, Philip T. Little was among the names of the other prominent men who set up The Hancock Bank as its incorporators and directors. According to the newspaper of the day, he was joined by Edmund P. Cohill, J.W.B. Bridges, Wm. A. Bowles, J. Frank Fields, Wm. P. Lashley and Wm. S. Cornelius in the banking endeavor.
Five years later, P.T. Little was still among the bank directors and was also one of the organizers of the Hancock Bridge Company. Unfortunately, that was the same year Little had to rebuild his canal warehouse, which had been destroyed by a hay fire. His new premises carried the usual general store items but added furniture to the stock, Bauman noted.
When the Western Maryland Railroad went through Hancock in 1904, the rail company signed a contract with P.T. Little to add a siding between their main line and his store to accommodate coal deliveries. It was a 99-year lease.
Little stopped working at age 75, turning over his store to his sons Thomas and Benjamin in the 1920s. They had clerked at the store for roughly four decades at that point.
Benjamin served as a Hancock councilman from 1933 to 1946.
In 1956, Thomas sold his interest in the family operation to his brother. Benjamin died in 1958.
The Little warehouse burned down in 1979. Arson was suspected, said local historians.
By then, several generations of the Little family had woven into the community of Hancock, marrying and having children, working in local industry and attending local schools and church.
The brothers Patrick and Thomas Little, born at the start of the 1800s on an Irish farm, chose Hancock as the spot where they would seize the opportunities that America presented.
The canal, river and railroad brought many immigrants to and through Hancock. The Little family roots stayed planted here, with branches growing as the town grew into a new century.