RailFest mixes foliage and railroads

October 02, 1997|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

For a few glorious hours every fall, Oakland, the sleepy seat of Maryland's westernmost county, relives its heyday as a destination for hundreds of train travelers.

The grand hotels are long gone, but Oakland's ornate Victorian train depot still stands, and once a year welcomes passengers aboard a fall foliage excursion from Cumberland, host of the five-day Maryland RailFest.

"It's pretty exciting," Asa McCain, mayor of the picturesque burg Maryland's highlands, said of the yearly stopover in Oakland. "Like many other small towns, we're trying to revitalize our downtown, and this is a big event for us."

RailFest is a big event in Cumberland, too. The Allegany County city is the setting -- and starting point for three train excursions -- for the festival, which attracts about 12,000 people. The festival begins today and runs through Monday.

Under a big tent at Canal Place, visitors can sample Phillips seafood, enjoy nightly entertainment and football (courtesy of Hooters). A KidsFest, miniature train rides and other fun are Saturday and Sunday.

RailFest, of course, celebrates Cumberland's and the state's rich railroad history. The event was launched six years ago to commemorate the 150th anniversary of "the linking of the rails" between Cumberland and Baltimore.

Cradled in the Allegheny Mountains, Cumberland, known as the "Queen City," was once the hub of westward expansion, first by the National Road, then the C & O Canal and finally the railroads. Its prosperity has faded, but remnants of Cumberland's colorful past remain.

The Western Maryland Station Center and Canal Place, where a portion of the canal is being restored, are the perfect setting for the festival and provide a stunning backdrop of mountain scenery and church steeples.

The most popular of the two Mainline Fall Foliage excursions is the 128-mile round trip to Terra Alta, W.Va., with a stopover in Oakland, once a prosperous resort town whose fortunes were tied to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It's been decades since any passenger trains ran this line through the Alleghenies. Passengers marvel about ascending the 17-mile grade up Backbone Mountain, Maryland's highest peak, and passage *T through the summit of the Alleghenies at Altamont, at 2,628 feet.

In Garrett County, passengers depart at the Oakland Station, a Queen Anne-style structure, completed in 1885, that the city is working to buy and restore. Passengers will not be allowed inside the building.

Shuttle buses will take guests to nearby restaurants and shopping. The best bet is an excursion to Swallow Falls State Park to see the state's highest waterfalls, Muddy Creek. The trip includes a boxed lunch.

The other Mainline excursion, a 97-mile trip along the Potomac River valley, includes travel through four tunnels, over two bridges and through the dramatic Magnolia Cut-off, a mountain passage. For many, the highlight is crossing the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said Margy Pein, marketing and sales director of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.

A layover in Brunswick, Frederick County, allows time to enjoy an annual festival, Railroad Days, which features food, antiques, entertainment and time to browse in a museum.

Unfortunately, this may be the last year for the two Mainline Fall Foliage excursions, Pein said. CSX, which owns the lines, has eliminated excursion trains on its tracks across the nation.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad offers a 32-mile round trip to Frostburg with a two-hour layover for lunch. Its appeal is Mountain Thunder, a 1916 steam locomotive, that chugs its way up the mountains. The ride is scenic, too, offering panoramic views of the countryside, passage through the Narrows, a dramatic mile-long gap in the Alleghenies, and even a tunnel. The ride is limited to 520 passengers.

The Terra Alta, W.Va. excursion departs at 9: 30 a.m. Saturday from Cumberland's Amtrak station. Passengers should be ready leave by 9 a.m. Returns at 5: 30 p.m.

The Brunswick excursion departs at 9: 30 a.m. Sunday from Cumberland's Amtrak station. Returns at 6: 15 p.m.

The cost is $40 for adults and $30 for children 12 and under.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad departs the Western Maryland Station Center at 11 a.m. daily and again at 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through October. The cost is $18 for adults, $10.75 for children ages 2 to 12. Free for children under age 2. Senior citizens over 60 are $17.50. Reservations requested.

For information, call 800-TRAIN-50 or 301-759-4400.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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