A summer mountain haven Resort: In the late 1800s, Pen Mar drew tourists to the cool summit of the Blue Ridge Mountains to enjoy the beauty of nature, as well as an amusement park, dancing and rides on a miniature steam railroad.


July 11, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When his Western Maryland Railway was saddled with debt, Gen. John Mifflin Hood knew just how to generate traffic. He created a destination -- a Washington County mountain resort that offered an escape from the area's notoriously humid summers.

Nestled on the summit of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- some 1,400 feet above sea level along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border -- Pen Mar offered visitors cooling breezes and sweeping views of the Cumberland Valley and miles of Pennsylvania farmland.

From 1878 until it closed in 1942, a casualty of wartime gas rationing and changing tastes, Pen Mar and its amusement park attracted nearly a million tourists each summer.

"Pen Mar is beautifully parked, shaded by forest trees and provides pleasant forms of entertainment -- among them airships that sail airily at the edge of a cliff, giving the impression of flying through space," said The Sun in 1923.

"There are carousels that revolve to music, and throughout the region Pen Mar is famous for its dancing floor and the especially fine music rendered for dancing."

Of its amusement park, The Sun reported, "Pen Mar boasts the best-known amusement park of the Blue Ridge Mountains and doubtless of the East. It is the 'Coney Island' of the heights to which pleasure-seekers from many miles distant come to escape from mid-summer heat and to find diversion in various pleasant forms."

Crowds departed for the Western Maryland resort aboard the Pen Mar Express, the Blue Mountain Express or one of the other excursion trains that daily chugged out of Baltimore's Hillen Station arriving a little over two hours later at the resort.

Hungry travelers alighting from the steam cars laden with Port Said bags or Saratoga Trunks, immediately stepped into the Pen VTC Mar Restaurant for refreshment and one of its famous 50-cent chicken dinners, while the luggage traveled on ahead to one of the resort's noted hotels or boarding houses.

A variety of accommodations were available at Pen Mar, from boarding houses to posh hotels with rambling verandas and rocking chairs. They included such notable hotels as Mrs. Crout's, the Bon-Aire, Pen Mar Hotel, Bonnie- view, Buena Vista, Pen-Rock or the Blue Mountain House, perhaps Pen Mar's most famous hostelry.

Built in 1882 of Georgia pine at a cost of $250,000, the Blue Mountain was a 300-room Victorian confection that burned to the ground in a spectacular summertime fire in 1913 with no loss of life.

"The Buena Vista, probably the most elaborate frame building ever built in Maryland in the style unaccountably called 'Queen Anne' by the Victorians, burned as recently as 1967 after years of survival as a Jesuit retreat," said The Sun in 1980.

"Baltimore blue-bloods and members of the mercantile class favored the Blue Mountain House during Pen Mar's golden age around 1900, while Washington government brass and foreign visitors were often holed up at the Buena Vista."

Visitors could listen to the music of John Bohl's Pen Mar Orchestra outdoors in a dance pavilion, take surrey rides or stroll along forested paths to the Glen Afton Spring and sample its cool bubbling waters. The more hardy could climb observatories at Mount Quirauk or High Rock, called "The Place of Perpetual Breezes," and take in the view four states.

One of Pen Mar's best remembered and most popular attractions was a miniature steam railroad that traveled over a quarter of a mile of track and was owned and operated by William Fleigh.

Fleigh, a Western Maryland Railway engineer for most of the year, took a leave of absence from the railroad each summer to run the train, which during its 39 years of operation carried more than 750,000 passengers.

It cost 5 cents to ride the tasseled coaches of the train with the shrill steam whistle.

Riders were warned by Fleigh, "Don't touch that boiler! She's red hot!"

In 1929, the Western Maryland Railway leased the park to an independent company that struggled to keep it in operation. By the late 1930s, however, with increasing competition from the automobile and the rise of other resorts, Pen Mar began to fade. It closed for good in 1942.

Since then, Pen Mar has been a way station on the Appalachian Trail. New life returned to the old resort in early 1980s when a new dance pavilion, community center and museum opened on the site.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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