A STEAM LOCOMOTIVE RIDE THROUGH THE VALLEYS OF WESTERN MARYLAND CAN BE EXCITING FOR A KID OR RELAXING FOR ADULTS -- BUT CAN IT BE BOTH?
The day began with hot coffee and a bolt cutter.
As my wife and I loafed in our suite at the Holiday Inn in Cumberland, Md., watching CNN and sipping coffee, our nearly 3-year-old son, Johnny, amused himself in the next room. Suddenly, the door on his side of the suite slammed shut. My wife, Anne, looked over and saw that the door had no handle on our side. His hallway door was chained.
One phone call and 15 minutes later, a hotel maintenance man arrived carrying a long-handled tool. Within 60 seconds he had snipped the chain, and the morning's first drama was over.
The second drama began shortly after 11 o'clock, when a black locomotive engine sounded its whistle and chugged into view a few hundred yards south of the railway depot in downtown Cumberland. We had, of course, anticipated this bit of excitement. Hell, we'd planned the whole weekend around it. Johnny is infatuated with trains, so Anne and I figured the 44-year-old, steam-powered engine operated by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad would give him a thrill he would recall for days, perhaps even weeks. And, with a little luck, it might even relax his frazzled parents.
Standing on the platform among 200 other ticket-holders (mainly senior citizens and couples with tykes), we felt a heat wave wash over us as the mighty engine rolled by. Johnny looked properly awed. "Go on the super train ride!" he cried.
We boarded the third of four cars and took a seat on the right side, which a brochure said offers the better view. At 11:30 on the nose, the train eased out of the station under ample billows of smoke and steam.
The track we followed used to be part of the main line of the now-defunct Western Maryland Railway. The 15.6-mile segment between Cumberland and Frostburg had seen an abrupt drop in freight traffic in 1975, when a blend of business woes caused the railroad virtually to abandon it. In 1987 a Virginia excursion-railroad owner, Jack Showalter, brought two locomotives and two rebuilt Pullman coaches to Maryland. His railroad began regular Cumberland-to-Frostburg runs in May 1989, using two leased coaches in addition to his original pair.
Our coach, the most comfortable of the four, was air-conditioned (two others weren't) and had a clerestory frieze, half-globe light fixtures and soft-cushioned seats covered with dark green velour. From top to bottom it was immaculately painted, cream with pale green trim.
There's something inherently relaxing about riding a train after battling road hogs on the Beltway all week. You sit back, you admire the scenery, you collect your thoughts. But as the train meandered through Allegheny valleys at 20 to 25 mph, Johnny's response to all this was a typical 3-year-old's: I want to be amused. He ran a toy car back and forth on the windowsill. Then he ordered me to hand over my copy of a train brochure, which he knew had great color pictures. Then he asked to walk in the aisle (absolutely not) and to eat lunch (pretty soon).
"I hate to say it," Anne remarked about halfway through the 45-minute ride, "but this isn't very scenic. With all these trees, you can hardly see a thing." I must have registered disappointment, for she added, "But it must be gorgeous in the fall."
At Frostburg, the aroma of grilling hamburgers permeated the platform area. A smiling man with a spatula stood beside a cooker, ready to accommodate us tourists on our 90-minute stopover. (Hamburger: $1.95.) Many families got on line there, but we went into the restaurant, a lovingly restored dining car. Big mistake. While eating, we missed the locomotive's 180-degree rotation on the depot's turntable. The burger eaters, seated in a spacious gazebo, must have had a flawless view of the maneuver.
After lunch we peeked into several perfumy trinket shops around the depot. Then we climbed a long staircase and a steep hill, ending up in a drab commercial district. Heading back down, I asked Anne, "Wouldn't it be funny if we missed the train back to Cumberland?"
After the rail excursion, I was pretty worn-out. But when we checked into the Inn at Walnut Bottom, Cumberland's premier bed-and-breakfast, I got my second wind. Our suite, with its lofty ceilings, splendid antique furniture, spotless bathroom and chainless doors, offered a perfect place to refresh ourselves for some late-afternoon sightseeing.
Cumberland has enjoyed a few heydays, none of them recent. In the 1750s it was the site of a key redoubt during the French and Indian War, Fort Cumberland (now gone). Thanks to railroads, particularly the Baltimore & Ohio, the town boomed as a transportation hub off and on between the 1860s and 1920s.
Nowadays it exudes a faintly seedy, but undeniable, charm. Many grand old homes still stand as reminders of its bygone prosperity, and in their architecture one sees a nearly comical spectrum of Victorian styles: Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Georgian Revival. (That's the list from Washington Street alone.)
Not only graceful manors but graceful manners as well were on display in town. Saturday morning, as we were awaiting the Holiday Inn chain-cutter, no fewer than three workers -- two chambermaids and a room-service waiter -- had offered Anne and me moral support as we comforted Johnny through the door. And that evening, Cumberland's poshest restaurant, Bistro, treated us superbly despite our too-casual clothing and very audible child.
Did we come home relaxed? Depends on how you define it -- and the parents of 3-year-olds tend to define these things a little differently. But we'd made the sojourn to Cumberland -- 260 miles round trip from Silver Spring, two nights, five meals, 300 bucks -- primarily so that Johnny could ride a train drawn by an authentic locomotive steam engine. I wondered if he really would remember the ride for three weeks.
This morning, Anne asked Johnny what we had done over the weekend. "Go on the super train ride!" he cried.
Attaboy. Nineteen days to go. Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, Canal St., Cumberland, Md. 21502; 1-800-872-4650. Departures: June-October, Tuesday-Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. June-September, adults $12, seniors/students $10.50, children 4-12 $7, children under 4 free; October, adults $14, seniors/students $13.50, children 4-12 $8, children under 4 free.
The Inn at Walnut Bottom, 120 Greene St., Cumberland, Md. 21502; (301) 777-0003. $55 to $65 per room per night ($100 for a two-bedroom, one-bath suite), including continental breakfast. No smoking.
Cumberland Holiday Inn, 100 S. George St., Cumberland, Md. 21502; (301) 724-8800. $50 to $74 per room per night.
Kevin McManus last wrote for the Magazine on the Johnny Boy Carryout.