Garrett boasts rare power, splitting rain east, west Continental divide runs across U.S. 48

December 02, 1990|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

If you happen to be heading through Garrett County on U.S. 48 and toss some cold coffee out of the car window near Green Lantern Road, it could wind up either in the Chesapeake Bay or the Mississippi River.

It all depends on which side of the Eastern Continental Divide you chose for your toss.

Unlike its better-known cousin west in the Rocky Mountains, the Eastern Continental Divide is the subject of little interest or discussion.

But for county residents and others interested in this geographical landmark, it is a unique characteristic that only Garrett County can lay claim to in the state.

Gary Yoder, a McHenry resident and Western Maryland liaison for the Department of Natural Resources, said the eastern divide created an excellent resource for the county.

"It's like pouring water on a dinosaur's back. It flows down one side or the other," he said.

"It gives us very clean water, because it all starts right here," he said. "We aren't carrying anyone else's pollution. It's great for fisheries and trout hatcheries."

The eastern divide runs from central Alabama to central New York and then makes a turn west toward Minnesota.

For about 43 miles, the ridge comes through Garrett County. All water in the southeastern third of the county runs into the Potomac River and then into the Chesapeake Bay.All water in the northwestern portion of the county winds up in the Mississippi River and keeps on moving right into the Gulf of Mexico.

The division presents many unique natural features. The region has five main waterways -- the Potomac, Savage, Casselman andYoughiogheny rivers and Bear Creek. Because of the divide, the Potomac and the Savage, on the east side, never meet the other three.

Deep Creek Lake sits on the west side of the divide and therefore eventually drains into the Mississippi.

"We know it's special," said Ralph M. Burnett, an Oakland resident and chairman of the Garrett County Development Corp., an economic development group. "It's unusual to be in one county and not have all the rivers cross each other or meander with each other."

"If you're a fish spawned in the Youghiogheny, you never get to see any fish on the other side," he said, laughing. But it does present a great opportunity for fish management. "You can raise brown trout in one river in the county and rainbow trout in another and never have them cross-breeding."

At the very least, the divide is a novelty that the county can call its own. They appreciate it, said Mr. Yoder of the Department of Natural Resources, but they don't get too excited about it.

"It's something that people here know about and grow up with, but it's no big deal to them," he said. "But it seems to surprise people passing through here."

When driving through the county on U.S. 48, the divide is marked by a simple, brown highway sign. The/sign was placed there as a result of the work done by Kenneth A. Schwarz of the Maryland Geological Survey.

When the highway was built 10 years ago, it was believed that the divide ran somewhere near the road.

"I traced the waters and which way the rivers flowed and found that the divide happened to cut across the road," he said. "We put the sign there because that's really where a drop of rain would fall either east or west. It's not a big deal, but it's a unique type of thing."

The divide follows Meadow Mountain for a third of the way south into the county and then moves through a valley and to Backbone Mountain in the lower half of the county, Mr. Schwarz said.

The highway marker is on the westernmost point of the divide in the county, he said.

Some residents say the sign is in the wrong place.

"I've argued for some time it's not where they say it is," Mr. Burnett said. "I think some of the streams that still flow into the Savage River are on the west side of where they say the divide is. I think the state is wrong."

But Mr. Schwarz is convinced that he was accurate in tracing the divide.

"I know that's where it is," he said, emphatically. "I've been out there enough to know where it is. It couldn't be anywhere else."

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