A colorful trip by train through Western Maryland Tracking Fall Foliage

October 09, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

CUMBERLAND — Cumberland--We've done this before. But the scenic train excursion from Cumberland to Frostburg offers such spectacular fall foliage (not to mention occasional breath- taking mountain vistas) that we decided we just had to do it again.

Riding the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad has become an autumn ritual with my family -- just like picking up homemade apple cider and pumpkins at roadside stands, visiting small-town fall festivals and hiking in the Western Maryland woods.

Come to think of it, this three-hour excursion through the Allegheny Mountains is kind of like taking a hike -- only a 1916 Baldwin steam engine known as Mountain Thunder does all the work. You just sit back and relax and enjoy nature.

There's plenty to see. As the 485,000-pound steam engine chugs its way out of downtown Cumberland and along Wills Creek, shades of crimson and gold paint the the rugged countryside.

Mountain Thunder, which burns 3 tons of coal on each round trip, passes through thick canopies of changing maples, oaks and hickories on this 15.6-mile run -- nearly all uphill -- to Frostburg.

Fall colors elicited admiration even during our late September journey (slightly earlier than our trip last year in early October when colors were at their peak). There really isn't a better family fall outing. Parents enjoy the scenery while kids enjoy the ride.

Kick back on the worn but comfortable seats in old passenger cars, breathe the fresh air (and occasional coal smoke) and catch a leaf or two as they fall through open windows. And wave to the many railroad admirers standing along the tracks in Cumberland and elsewhere.

This popular trip affords more than a chance to see some autumn color in the Western Maryland mountains. Any time of the year, it's an excursion filled with nostalgia and natural beauty.

Your step back in time begins as soon as you arrive at Station Square in downtown Cumberland, off Interstate 68. The recently refurbished parking area features brick promenades, benches and decorative lights, adding a touch of elegance to the Western Maryland Station Center, built in 1913. The feeling of yesteryear continues as you step inside the station's spacious waiting room with its oak paneling and wooden benches. Old train photos on display give about-to-board passengers a sense of what it must have been like during the heyday of real passenger service on the Western Maryland Railroad.

You won't miss Mountain Thunder's arrival. You'll hear the engine whistle as it rounds the bend crossing the Potomac River from the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad yard in West Virginia. You'll hear the screech of metal, see a burst of smoke and smell the burning coal.

For many railroad buffs, the star of the excursion is the locomotive itself, built for use by the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad bought the engine a few years ago and refurbished the locomotive in its own shops. Mountain Thunder is the only steam engine in operation in Maryland.

The first natural marvel on the trip is the Narrows, a mile-long natural gap in the Allegheny Mountains that became the nation's historic gateway to the West. Mountain Thunder passes through this 900-foot deep gorge -- with exposed red shale and sandstone cliffs above -- on its 45-minute, westward trek to Frostburg.

As we pass through this stunning break in the mountains, a guide points out that the projecting sandstone cliffs on Wills Mountain are known as Lovers Leap -- named, legend has it, after a young, lovesick maiden who leaped to her death from the mountain's highest point. Her legacy is also remembered by a nearby tavern -- Lovers Leap Lounge.

We run through glorious autumn foliage as the train chugs through a once-busy rail junction and over a double-truss bridge. We come upon and quickly pass another natural wonder: Bone Cave. This opening in the mountainside was discovered in 1912 during the building of the railroad. A team of Smithsonian Institution scientists excavated the cave about that time and found the fossil remains of some 46 species. Some of the items are on display at the train station.

Before long, we're rounding a half-mile-long arc called Helmstetter's Curve -- named after a family that operates a dairy farm encircled by the tracks. The curve offers passengers -- there are some 200 on our Sunday run -- a dramatic view of Cash Valley below.

It was a brief passage through darkness -- a 914-foot tunnel that awed our children. They wanted more -- my 3-year-old immediately said, "I want to do that again." But there's just one tunnel on this excursion -- though we'll pass through it again on the return trip.

Thick scatterings of trees obstruct much of the view. But just before Frostburg, several clearings allow views overlooking Savage Mountain. Passengers can also catch glimpses of Mount Savage, a small mountainside village, and, later, Frostburg's church spires.

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