Thanks To Ski Resort, Town Is On Prosperity Trail Again


January 22, 1995|By GREG TASKER

CLEAR SPRING — Not all roads lead to Clear Spring but the few that do have been the measure by which this town's fortunes rise and fall.

The great national road -- now known as the Old National Pike or Route 40 -- brought the first influx of travelers to the taverns, inns, hotels and stagecoach stops along East Cumberland Street. Clear Spring prospered as an endless parade of westbound wagons from Baltimore lined the streets. Some 2,500 people -- many on horseback and foot -- passed through the town each month during the height of the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s.

Prosperity waned as railroads pushed over the mountains and became the new mode of transportation to the untamed west.

More than a century later, Clear Spring may appear to "drowse" under the chestnuts, as one 19th-century writer remarked, but the town is flourishing once again -- at least during the winter.

A great 20th-century highway -- Interstate 70 -- brings thousands of skiers from Northern Virginia, Baltimore and Washington through the Washington County town, population 450, on their way to Pennsylvania's Whitetail Ski Resort, just over the Mason-Dixon Line.

At Exit 18, Clear Spring just happens to be the most convenient route to "the Mountain," as the locals call Whitetail, a ski resort that opened for business just a few years ago.

"Whitetail has brought a lot of money, a lot of prosperity," says William Albowicz, former mayor and now a town councilman. "We thought there would be a lot of major problems but there haven't been. It's really hectic when day skiers leave and evening skiers come in."

Skiers have meant brisk business for the few stores and taverns that line East Cumberland Street, the town's main east-west road. The ski resort brought a McDonald's franchise to Mill Street near the I-70 interchange and prompted Chris and Robin Datilio to open a seasonal ski rental shop at the west edge of town.

"We came here right after Whitetail," says Mr. Datilio, who lives in Hagerstown, 12 miles east of Clear Spring. "We cater to the mountain and some other resorts in the area. Local businesses didn't mind all the new traffic because it meant more business. But it took some getting used to for the local residents."

Mr. Albowicz, who moved his family to Clear Spring in 1972 to escape the rat race in Washington, D.C., said developers are now eyeing land near the I-70 interchange for a motel and fast-food restaurants. A pair of gas station/convenience stores are already situated there.

Even so, folks here don't expect too much to change too fast.

That's because Clear Spring (named for a spring in the center of town) has remained largely unchanged for decades. Many 19th-century brick buildings -- once hotels with names such as Potomac House or the White Bear Tavern -- still stand. Many of the roads leading in and out of town are narrow farm lanes.

"A lot of people have lived here since I can remember," says Don Munday, a clerk at Clear Spring Hardware. "Some people have lived in the same house all their lives. I haven't gone too far. I used to live across the street. It's a pretty quiet place."

It's the kind of place where purchases at the hardware are charged to family accounts. Where people like John Mills, an unemployed carpenter, can pull up a stool at the hardware store and chat with Mr. Munday and customers -- neighbors -- buying paint, nails or tools.

"Almost all of these homes around here were businesses at one time or another," says Mr. Mills, a lifelong Clear Spring resident. "When I was a kid we had two grocery stores here. Now we don't have any. I don't know why they can't make it. Maybe it's been too quiet here."

Clear Spring has had its share of excitement, though.

There was the famous meteor shower of 1833. An eyewitness reported electric sparks falling as fast as snowflakes during a heavy snowstorm.

"They appeared as large as a man's fist, and immediately upon touching the earth would disappear. They fell all around me and on my head but I only felt a slight sensation," Anson W. Buttles, who lived in Clear Spring as a child, recalled some 70 years later.

The National Turnpike brought famous 19th-century Americans and others to town. Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Henry Clay, President Benjamin Harrison, Black Hawk and Santa Anna were among them. Black Hawk passed through on his way to Washington with 50 other Indians.

During the Civil War, Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry crossed the National Road just west of Clear Spring during his raid around the federal army. Things have been relatively quiet since then.

So much so that a writer from Harper's New Monthly magazine, visiting Clear Spring in 1879, described the town as "an old-fashioned village at the foot of another ridge of mountains, which the withdrawal of travel has left indigent." The writer wasn't the least bit surprised to find a tavern owner napping "without any expectation of customers" or to hear his voice echo in a deserted hotel.

"Generations have lived here in this quiet, peaceful town," Mr. Datilio says. "And then bang, 10,000 cars were rolling through here because of the mountain. Some people were up in arms at first but we're pretty much settled into the regular routine of a resort now."

The routine of a resort town is just fine with Dorothy Shoemaker, a longtime clerk at Wayne's Clear Spring Beverages, a liquor store that sits at the town's main intersection and affords a view of the endless parade of passing cars with skis mounted on their roofs.

" . . . All the traffic comes right through here," she says. "It's good for the store. It's good for the town. It's really busy in the wintertime."

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