Reviving Hancock

April 26, 1992

A couple of hours outside Baltimore, you're driving west toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike and are ready to take a break. You have two choices: Stop in Breezewood, Pa., the self-proclaimed "town of motels," the tacky capital of the world. Or, perhaps, take a break in Hancock, Md., for a ride on a canal boat, some antique-shop browsing, a stretch of the ole' legs on the riverside hiking trail.

Wake up, you're dreaming.

The Hancock alternative doesn't exist. Yet. A few restaurants in the sleepy Washington County town of 1,900 do beckon, but there's not enough there to lure most of the 30,000 vehicles on Interstate 70 from passing right on by, to Breezewood and beyond. Officials from Hancock, the state and federal governments are now working on plans to develop tourist attractions in the town.

This summer, the National Park Service intends to pump fresh water back into the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Hancock, as well as at Williamsport and Brunswick -- part of a two-year, $2.3 million federal project. Someday, mules might tow barges of tourists as they once did boats of coal, grain and lumber before the railroad and a major flood dealt the canal trade killing blows 70 years ago.

Plans are also being developed to convert an abandoned rail right-of-way into a hike-and-bike trail, part of a 315-mile green ribbon destined to extend from Pittsburgh to Washington. One related idea being floated calls for a pedestrian boardwalk to be built linking the trail to the rear of Main Street shops.

Many Hancock residents remain dubious of such dreams. Public funding, long used to leverage private investment in similar endeavors, is especially hard to come by now.

But if there was ever a breach in the state's tourism map, this is it. Just west of Hancock, in fact, the Sideling Hill Visitors Center, a geological museum and tourist center wedged into an impressive, towering road cut, has already drawn 300,000 people before its first full summer of operation. The new Interstate 68, from Hancock to West Virginia, is also steering more motorists through Western Maryland.

Here's to Hancock's revitalization taking flight. Then, Maryland motorists may be able to forgo another coffee break in, ugh, Breezewood.

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