ROCKY GAP -- President Bush couldn't accept his invitation to the dedication of the nation's newest interstate yesterday in Western Maryland, so President Washington had to do.
Washington arrived at the ceremonies overlooking Rocky Gap State Park early yesterday afternoon in a horse-drawn wagon and addressed several thousand people who came to celebrate the dedication of the new National Freeway, Interstate 68.
"I have traveled through many pages in history to be here today," said Washington, a.k.a. Louis Van Hollen of Cumberland. "What you are doing here today is the fulfillment of a dream."
Mr. Van Hollen gave a stirring performance as Washington, who once traveled this same route through Western Maryland more than 200 years ago during the French and Indian War.
Washington's presence served as a symbol of the road's significance, past and present -- its history as the original road west and its importance to the future of the depressed Western Maryland region.
The final 19 miles of the National Freeway were completed this week and the road, previously called U.S. 48, was dubbed Interstate 68 yesterday. The highway runs 111 miles from Hancock to Morgantown, W.Va.
The road took more than 30 years to complete, and in that time Western Maryland has changed from industrially rich to economically depressed.
State and local officials believe opening up the west with the new highway and making it part of the interstate system will help attract people and business.
"If we are vigilant, we will have more people coming out here, as tourists and as people bringing business, than maybe any other part of the state," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said.
Yesterday was Western Maryland's day in the 98-degree sun, as festivities also included dedication of the $5 million Sideling Hill Exhibit Center, a memorial for Maryland's Vietnam veterans at the exhibit center and the opening of the three-day Rocky Gap Music Festival.
The exhibit center, on I-68 just west of Hancock, is a three-story structure that includes 16 exhibits that help explain 350 million years of geological history on display outside in a 350-foot-deep road cut.
Kenneth N. Weaver, director of the Maryland Geological Survey, told a crowd of several hundred people who attended the morning ceremonies that the center is a "geological classroom, something to learn from."
The day kicked off with the unveiling of the Maryland Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Sideling Hill, a plaque on a boulder with a
panoramic view east over Maryland and north to Pennsylvania.
The Western Maryland chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America was the driving force behind the memorial, and it was a moving event for members such as Tigh Davis of Cumberland.
"I'm very proud of it," he said. "It's an emotional day. It took a lot of effort and was long overdue."