Resort touted good clean fun

Way Back When

Summer: Mountain Lake Park, begun in the 1880s, offered a beautiful mountain getaway for those who wanted to spend time enjoying a `high moral tone.'

April 03, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Despite the lingering piles of snow that remain as a reminder of the 56 inches that blanketed Mountain Lake Park over the winter, daffodils there are starting to poke their heads up through the ground. The cold is releasing its grip on this once-fashionable Garrett County resort, which dates to 1881.

Soon shutters will be thrown back and wicker porch furniture returned to broad Victorian porches as its 1,300 residents prepare for another summer in what was once called "America's ideal summer resort."

This Western Maryland town -- "not an experiment but an accomplished fact," said an 1887 advertisement -- today comprises 145 homes and other buildings, and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.

The town had its beginnings when four Methodist Episcopal ministers purchased 800 acres and established a religious and cultural resort. Landscape architect H.E. Faul, who also designed Druid Hill Park, laid out its networks of connecting walkways through stands of oaks and footpaths and boardwalks across marshes.

Large "cottages" reflecting Victorian and "missionary Gothic" styles are set on large lots with sun-dappled lawns. Guest houses and fashionable hotels catered to the crowds that arrived each summer. A spring was dammed to create a lake. A ball field, golf course and tennis courts were constructed for recreation. The community is the site of the second oldest United States Lawn Tennis Association tennis tournament in the East, dating to 1921.

Wealthy families from Baltimore, Washington, West Virginia and Ohio traveled here aboard the cars of the B & O Railroad, whose trains still pass through.

The resort's intellectual model was Chautauqua, N.Y., and it quickly became known for its Mountain Chautauqua program, featuring intellectuals and speakers from the East Coast.

It was a place of "high moral tone," with deed restrictions against dancing, card playing, drinking or gambling in public or private homes, according to early advertisements.

"Whoever has watched the folly and dissipation, the tribulations and sins of our fashionable watering places, must have felt that however conducive to health and pleasure the atmosphere and water of Saratoga, the surf and breeze of Cape May, Long Branch and Newport, the moral environment is anything but favorable to the cultivation of a pure and elevated character," read an ad in an 1882 edition of the nearby Oakland Republican.

The town's ban against dancing lasted into the 1920s. "The amusements at the park beyond religious meetings are few, and it is claimed that young people visiting the park find it hard to obtain recreation," reported The Sun in 1924.

However, just down the road and hard by the railroad tracks stood the town of Loch Lynn, which was everything Mountain Lake Park wasn't. There were bawdy saloons, noisy hotels, dancing and card playing.

A popular saying of the time which must have appealed to those seeking relief from the moral and intellectual uplift of Mountain Lake Park, advised: "If you want to sin go to Loch Lynn. For Jesus' sake go to Mountain Lake."

In 1900, the town built a huge circular amphitheater that could hold an audience of 5,000. Such notables as William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, Billy Sunday and Samuel Gompers spoke to anxious listeners who filled every seat. "It was here that Dr. Russell Conwell, president of Temple University delivered his famous `Acres of Diamonds' oration, and Dewitt Talmadge, Billy Sunday and other evangelists were heard often," reported The Evening Sun. The great amphitheater was razed in 1946, after being deemed a fire hazard.

The Great Depression, the decline of the railroads and the popularity of the automobile doomed Mountain Lake Park as crowds went elsewhere. The old hotels either burned or were pulled down.

"The ministers who bought the land and designed the idyllic resort were men of tunnel vision, directed toward spiritual rather than material concerns," observed The Evening Sun.

"Although joined by some successful businessmen, they operated as a private club and placed such strictures on ownership that after the first burst of enthusiasm, property was hard to sell."

In 1959, the tranquillity of the community was shattered when seven children were killed after the B & O's eastbound Diplomat slammed into a stalled school bus.

But today, there is a renewed interest in the community as once dilapidated houses are being renovated and carefully restored.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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