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Going to Extremes
To find the heart of Maryland and Virginia, you need to start by exploring the edges. Maryland's Panhandle, Asking for Change

By Bill Heavey
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page E01
   


I'd been bouncing down the little dirt track that parallels Ginseng Run near the town of McHenry in westernmost Maryland for what seemed like hours when a wild turkey traipsed across the road. I slammed on the brakes, and so did the turkey. I backed up for a better look. So did the turkey, bobbing across the road it had just traversed. And suddenly there we were, a Honda Civic and America's largest game bird, 20 feet apart and sharing a single telepathic thought: I've never seen one this close before.

It was half an hour later that I finally found someone to ask for directions. The guy was mowing the grass by his mobile home. He was a big, red-faced guy in an American flag rugby shirt. Another flag flew from the porch. He had rigged a second mailbox next to his real one, on a pole 15 feet high. The sign on it read "Air Mail."

"I'm totally lost," I said. He pulled a

handkerchief from his back pocket, blew his nose mightily and tucked the cloth away. "Most folks are," he observed at last. "Least you know it."

If the folks in Baltimore who promote Maryland tourism have their say, the remote, nether reaches of Maryland will not stay lost much longer. A concerted effort by state tourism officials, given a good goosing by Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor, who represents Allegany County, has resulted in a number of events that may conspire to put Maryland's long-neglected panhandle on the map. There's an $87 million plan to rewater the terminus of the C & O Canal and create a park in downtown Cumberland. There's the plan to continue propping up the area's historic rail tour, which runs from Cumberland to Frostburg, and feeds patrons to a little olde restaurant that the state just bought. But the crowning glory is Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, a $54 million venture designed to attract something the panhandle has long ignored: high-income business and leisure travelers. The place is basically a glorified conference center located inside a state park, hard by the heretofore entirely unknown waters of Lake Habeeb. While the location happens to be a two-hour drive from D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburgh, convention-goers alone won't be enough to make the resort pay off. For Rocky Gap to succeed, it has to attract to Maryland's remote panhandle people who don't usually venture west of White Flint. Which is why they're putting in one of the country's few Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses open to the public. It's a 7,100-yard beauty with enough underground water pipes to supply a small city.

Whether these plans to turn Western Maryland into a key vacation area work out or not, there is plenty of pretty country, historic clutter and nice walking out there right now. And you won't need golf spikes and a platinum credit card to enjoy them. At Swallow Falls State Park, you step out of your car into a grove of 300-year-old hemlock trees, then walk a quarter-mile to 63-foot-high Muddy Creek Falls, the state's highest. There's world-class whitewater rafting on the upper part of the Youghiogheny River, and tamer water for tubing on the lower part. And don't overlook the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad just because tax dollars subsidize its operation. It's a bargain at $16 for a three-hour, 32-mile round-trip down a mile-long gorge, over an iron truss bridge and through the 914-foot Brush Tunnel. PBS found it worthy of inclusion in its "Great Scenic Railway Journeys" TV show.

But the great affair out here is the ramble, to see what's over the next hill, to poke your nose into places you haven't been invited.

At Beal Masonry, which is a guy's house with tons of rock scattered around the yard and two guys in a little shed operating a breaker that sounds like a pile driver, I stop and poke. I'm there at the edge of the shed for three minutes before the men see me, smile and stop work. I tell them I keep seeing such beautiful stone work around here, walls and old houses.

"Well, people been doing it a long time," says one. "You get a feel for it after a while." He tells me most of what he lays is sandstone, though some of it's mica. You can't tell by the color alone. Some mica is light and some is dark. The men are wearing neither glasses nor hard hats as they feed lengths of stone into the powerful crusher.

"Don't you worry about splinters in your eye?" I ask. "Nah. Never had one yet. Glad you reminded me, though. We better put something on case the OSHA inspector comes by."

Part of the reason so few Washingtonians ever really see this part of the world is, paradoxically, that the road out here is too good. Route 68, the great autobahn of Western Maryland, starts at Hancock, where a long cannon shot fired north from West Virginia might easily fly two miles over the skinny "wrist" of Maryland and cross the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. From here the highway heads west with astonishing purpose. When the hills go up, it cuts through them. When the valleys go down, the road rides above them on pylons. It's a masterpiece of engineering and, as you whiz along at the posted 65, there are people passing you so fast they'll suck the daisy right out of your radio antenna. So you speed up to join the herd and the next thing you know, they've led you straight to Deep Creek Lake's Arrowhead market, where you'll find a well-stocked deli, three flavors of cappuccino (including the ill-advised Banana Nut) and a full-service business center. And you might as well have taken two orbits around the Beltway and returned to downtown Bethesda.

If you want to see what you're traveling through, you must force your car into an exit lane and get on the small roads. The best are Route 40 and, especially, 40 Alt, which follow parts of the old National Road, the first federally funded road in the country, stretching the 591 miles from Cumberland to Vandalia, Ill. Envisioned by George Washington and others as a way to open a wide door to the country west of the Allegheny Mountains, it was built before the federal highway trust fund was a gleam in a congressman's eye.

You don't want to miss the town of Cumberland. With a population of 24,000, it's the biggest town in Western Maryland and marks the terminus of the 184.5-mile C & O Canal that starts in Georgetown. (The last stone mile marker stands in a field of grass. Construction is under way on a program to re-water the canal to its end, though it's not due to be completed until 2005.) In the meantime, there's a full day's worth of sightseeing in Cumberland. You can take a neat little walking tour through the Victorian Historical District to see the houses built for railroad and coal barons, as well as the soaring spire of the Allegany County Court House, and peer through the window of the one-room cabin that was George Washington's first command post.

Inside is a mannequin of the Father of Our Country with his sword, bugle and chamber pot. The signs describing his escapes from death make Bruce Willis look like a pushover. Once Washington woke up to find his straw bed on fire. Another time, an Indian who shot at him missed from 50 feet. Then there was the time he fell into the Allegheny and could have drowned. At British Gen. Edward Braddock's ill-fated expedition against the French at what is now Pittsburgh (Braddock failed to heed young Washington's advice about the peculiar nature of frontier warfare and promptly got a major butt-whupping), George had four bullets through his clothing and two horses shot from under him. "But once again he escaped unharmed," according to the plaque.

You can take a 28-stop walking tour of downtown that shows you where the original Fort Cumberland stood and traces the city's development as a transportation center in the 18th and 19th centuries. Don't miss History House, the opulent 18-room residence built for the president of the C & O Canal in 1867, now restored and filled with collections of clothing, toys and furniture. As you head out of town on 40 Alt, you pass through the thousand-foot wall of the "narrows" between Will's and Haystack mountains.

Just a few miles west of Cumberland is Frostburg, another town on the National Road, site of Frostburg State University and summer home to the Redskins (and the target of a tornado last week that caused significant damage to many of the town's homes). In the basement museum of the turn-of-the-century Hotel Gunter, which has its own jail, a gamecock fighting arena and a mock-up of the inside of a coal mine, you get a sense of how the discovery of coal in the surrounding mountains in 1810 changed this part of the world.

For the next century, coal was king and this valley was a jewel in its crown. Miners from England, Ireland and Wales came and asked the way to George's Creek to work the 12-foot-wide seam of bituminous coal under Big Savage Mountain and Dan's Mountain surrounding the town. Cumberland coal was of such quality that ships of the Cunard line would burn no other. In 1840, the railroad arrived, making the area an important commercial center.

It all collapsed when oil replaced coal. The devastation is hard to imagine today. In the museum, the writings of F. DeSales Meyers, a boy who had grown up during the boom and returned many years later, gives you a glimmer of what it must have been like: how the creeks no longer run yellow with sulphur from the crushed rock, how the forest, greener now, has crept back down the hills to the edge of town. "The old folks talk of how the forest may take over the town and it will all look the way it did 200 years ago."

There's a gem of a carriage museum here, down near the Old Depot Restaurant where the train from Cumberland stops. The Thrasher houses about 50 terrific examples of what you drove to impress the neighbors before Henry Ford. All were collected by a local, James Thrasher, who restored closed carriages, open sleighs, funeral wagons, even dog and golf carts to road condition. There's a beautiful five-windowed model that belonged to Theodore Roosevelt and a sleigh used by the Vanderbilt family. Perhaps the most interesting carriage here is the oldest, a modest little family coach called a Germantown Rockaway that dates from 1850. There's a luggage rack on the back, panes of glass that slide down into the doors and -- most significant -- an extended roof to shield the driver (usually the father) from rain.

This, says Deborah Miller, who works at the museum, was a new feature in the history of carriage making. In Europe, no one had ever given any thought to the comfort of the servants driving the vehicle. The extended roof was a subtle reflection of the democratization of the young United States.

Heading ever westward on Alt 40, I stop atop a hill to gaze at a huge barn next to an even bigger stone house, three stories tall with massive chimneys at each end. It's the middle of the day and no one's around. There's no telling how old this place is. The stone work could be from two hundred years ago. The farm is just up the road from Little Meadows, a favorite campsite for Gen. Braddock's forces nearly 300 years ago. I walk around the barn, and a rabbit hiding in the grass at my feet zips inside through a hole the size of my fist. There are two weather vanes on top pointing in different directions. The barn has been sanded by the wind until the grain of the wood stands up under your fingers. Halfway up is an old sign that says LITTLE MEADOWS that would fetch $800 in a Georgetown antiques shop. Peeking through a window reveals paddocks heaped with old farm machines and a set of pink hot curlers. Driving on to a gas station up the road, I want to say something to the old guy behind the register.

"This sure is old country," I venture awkwardly.

"Yep, 1492's what they say," he answers. He looks at me neutrally. But when he sees I'm smiling, he smiles, too.

The humpbacked Casselman River Bridge in Grantsville was built 50 feet over the water to allow for an extension of the C & O Canal up this way that never came. At the time of its unveiling in 1813, it was to be the longest single span bridge in the country -- 80 feet -- and more than a few folks were skeptical that it would stand at all. The night before the official opening, the contractor secretly had the supports removed to test it. The next morning, he was standing confidently beneath the keystone when the wooden beams were taken away.

Today, it's a great spot for a picnic lunch. A few hundred yards away is the nonprofit Spruce Forest Artisan Village, founded by a Mennonite woman 40 years ago. Local potters, blacksmiths, spinners, weavers and woodcarvers demonstrate and sell their crafts in 12 restored log houses and buildings, two of which date to the Revolutionary War. It's a nice setting and refreshingly uncommercial. Next door is the Penn Alps restaurant, serving Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in a restored stagecoach stop dating to 1818.

Deep Creek Lake has long been the vacation center of Western Maryland. The state's biggest lake, created by a dam in 1925, is 12 miles long and has 65 miles of shoreline. For many years, it was a quiet, middle-class, family-oriented getaway. You came and rented a cottage for a week or two, let the kids splash in the lake and tried to forget what your boss's face looked like. Over the past decade or so, there's been a boom in construction: vacation homes, rental properties and condos. The quiet lake now has more anglers, pleasure boaters and members of the Hell's Angels Personal Water Craft Club per square mile here than any place on the Chesapeake Bay. The first million-dollar lakefront home went up not too long ago, and the locals still can't quite believe it. Indeed, in an attempt to avoid overdevelopment, the state last week announced plans to buy the lake. Most people see only the parts where the main road, Route 219, runs along the shore. Back in the southern half of the lake along roads named Boy Scout and Turkey Neck, there are still some farms hanging on.

Deep Creek Lake is a spread-out kind of place, a destination without a center. After cruising the shore and back roads for a couple of hours, I pulled into the Arrowhead market for a sandwich. I asked a woman mopping the floor by the deli section if I was right that there was not really any "there" there, a place you could walk around and have a cup of coffee. "Maybe," she said. "But I been living here 20 years and I haven't found it yet." At the Deep Creek Lake State Park desk, I find Susan Friend working on a rainy day and ask her how she views the recent influx of people and the pending "discovery" of Western Maryland. She grew up in the nearby town of Oakton and has lived here her whole life. The modest, family summer resort is certain to get more condos, more golfers, more Saabs from the fat Washington suburbs, maybe start pulling in people from all around the area, maybe become the Berkshires of the mid-Atlantic. Or maybe not.

"Personally, I don't like it," she said, unsurprisingly. "I guess we need the progress, but I hate to see them cutting down all the trees. It's tough to find a job around here in the off-season. The tourists come Memorial Day and leave by Labor Day. I don't think that's going to change." Bill Heavey last wrote about Cappadocia, Turkey, for Travel.

Details : Maryland Panhandle

GETTING THERE: Take the Beltway to I-270 north to I-70 West at Hagerstown to Route 68 west at Hancock. Route 40 and 40 Alt run roughly parallel to 68 and will take you through Cumberland, Frostburg and Grantsville.

ROCKY GAP LODGE AND GOLF RESORT: Rooms start at $105 double. The back nine are to be open by Aug. 1, the front nine by October. This summer you can play the front nine twice, with cart included, for $45. Soft spikes are required. Call 1-800-724-0828.

INFORMATION: Maryland Office of Tourism, 1-800-394-5725, http://www.mdisfun.org; Garrett County, http://www.gcnet.net/ gctourism/gct.htm; Allegany County, http:// www.mdmountain side.com.

CUMBERLAND

WHAT TO DO: The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (1-800-872-4650) runs May through September from Cumberland to Frostburg. Reservations recommended. The Allegany County visitors center (301-777-5905) is in the Cumberland train station.

History House (301-777-8678) is an 1867 mansion with paintings, furniture, costumes and Civil War artifacts. Admission is $3.

Rocky Gap State Park (301-777-2139), six miles east of Cumberland on I-68, sits on the 243-acre Lake Habeeb in a saddle between Evitts and Martin mountains. There are three swimming beaches and a bathhouse, 278 reservable campsites, boat rentals and a visitors center.

WHERE TO STAY: The Inn at Walnut Bottom (1-800-286-9718) offers accommodations in two adjoining 19th-century houses. Rooms start at $79, including full breakfast. The inn'a Oxford House Restaurant is one of the better restaurants in town.

The Cumberland Holiday Inn (301-724-8800) is a good bet if the best surprise is no surprise and you want to be near Exit 43-C of Route 68. Doubles start at $69.

WHERE TO EAT: The Bourbon Street Cafe (82 Baltimore St.), a New Orleans-style restaurant downtown, serves Cajun specialties. When Pigs Fly (18 Valley St.) is a popular restaurant among locals, serving ribs, chicken, seafood and microbrew beer.

GRANTSVILLE

WHAT TO DO: Spruce Forest Artisan Village (301-895-3332), a half-mile east of town on Route 40 Alt, features local crafts in restored log buildings. Open Monday through Saturday.

WHERE TO STAY: One of the best deals in the area is the single private room in the main building of the Casselman Motor Inn (301-895-5055) . Forget the 40 motel rooms in the back building. The other three guest rooms in the 1824 inn built to serve travelers along the National Road are smallish and share a single bath. But the large, $75-a-night main room has a king-size four-poster bed and a big bathtub.

New Germany State Park (301-895-5453), five miles south of Grantsville off Route 68, is popular with hikers and bikers. It has a 13-acre lake, 39 campsites and 11 cabins.

FROSTBURG

WHAT TO DO: Thrasher Carriage Museum (301-689-3380) at the Depot Center houses more than 50 beautifully restored 19th- and 20th- century carriages.

WHERE TO STAY: The turn-of-the-century Hotel Gunter (301-689-6511) has 18 apartments and 17 hotel rooms, each furnished in Victorian style with cable TV and air conditioning. There is a restaurant and bar. Rates start at $65.95 double.

DEEP CREEK LAKE

WHAT TO DO: Swallow Falls State Park (301-334-9180), nine miles northwest of Oakland on County Route 20, features the 63-foot Muddy Creek Falls. The park has trails, campsites, five rental cabins and a pet loop.

Deep Creek Lake State Park (301-387-5563) is on the east side of the lake, two miles east of Thayerville off Route 219. There are 108 reservable campsites, horseback riding, trailer hookups and flat-water canoeing.

For rafting on the upper and lower Youghiogheny, contact White Water Adventures (1-800-992-7238), Precision Rafting (1-800-477-3723) or Laurel Highlands River Tours (1-800-472-3846). For boat rentals, contact Bill's Marine Service (301-387-5536), Crystal Waters Boat Rentals (301-387-5515) or Deep Creek Outfitters (301-387-6977). For personal watercraft rentals, call the Aquatic Center (301-387-8233).

WHERE TO STAY: The Carmel Cove Inn (301-387-0067) features 10 rooms in a former monastery 200 yards from the lake. Tennis court, hot tub, billiard room, canoes, bicycles and private fireplaces.

Haley Farm (1-888-231-3276) is a 65-acre farm B&B with orchards, horses and a trout pond. Minutes from the lake, it has bikes, canoes and hot tubs. Rates start from $110 double.

The Lake Pointe Inn (1-800-523-5253) has nine rooms right on the lake. Rates start at $138 weekends, $123 weekdays, with full breakfast.

Rental properties are a big business at Deep Creek. Contact A&A Realty (1-800-336-7303), Railey Rentals (1-800-447-3034) or Caldwell Banker at (1-800-769-5300). Average price for a house during the week runs anywhere from $300 up, weekends $200 up.

WHERE TO EAT: The Honi-Honi bar is the main watering hole, located on Route 219 right on the lake. Next door is Pizzeria Uno. It has a deck and a boat dock. Live entertainment Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

-- Bill Heavey

Deep Creek Lake: Family getawayland, state-protected from overdevelopment.

Rocky Gap State Park: Site of Western Maryland's first business-class resort.

Cumberland: Terminus of C & O Canal, to be redeveloped by 2005.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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