Once-bustling park haven of cool quiet

Community: Longtime neighbors continue to enjoy the peace and solitude of Mountain Lake Park, once a Chautauqua-style refuge that drew thousands each summer.

July 11, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MOUNTAIN LAKE PARK -- Dolores Hayden can't get over how hot it's been. On her spacious front porch last week, shaded from the afternoon sun, it must have been all of 85 degrees.

A century ago, when Baltimore streets sweltered, city dwellers who could afford to boarded trains to escape to this small Garrett County community. From the early 1880s until about 1920, this was one of the mid-Atlantic region's premier summer resorts.

Deep Creek Lake has long since supplanted Mountain Lake Park as Western Maryland's vacation destination. But some things haven't changed in this former resort -- starting with the temperatures.

While a heat wave pushed the mercury above 100 degrees in Central Maryland last week, thermometers here registered a good 10 degrees to 15 degrees cooler, making air conditioning almost unnecessary.

And it's a good thing, because there are very few air conditioners here.

Mountain Lake Park's cool, clean mountain air -- with the community's open-air lectures, church services and strict moral code -- once drew thousands every summer from throughout the East.

"Years ago, it was a bustling place," says Willard Hayden, Dolores' 72-year-old husband, as he kneels down to review a tattered poster advertising the resort's attractions in 1900.

"The Paradise of the Allegheny Mountains," it was called, at least by its developer.

"No hay fever. No malaria. No insect pests. No liquors," one ad touted.

Mountain Lake Park was founded in 1881 as a Chautauqua-style resort. Vowing to make it a refuge from the "grave moral perils" of cities, the developers -- four prominent Methodists from West Virginia -- modeled it after the New York state lakefront training camp for Sunday school teachers.

`Learn about God'

"You could come and learn about God, have a religious experience and cool off in summertime," says Katharine Smith, 56, who lives in the sprawling Gables Cottage built by her great-great-grandparents.

Dancing, card-playing, drinking and gambling -- among other things -- were banned, and the developers arranged with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for trains not to stop at "the park" on Sundays.

One of a trio of rail-oriented resorts in Garrett County, Mountain Lake Park was the only one touting its purity. Across the tracks was Loch Lynn, which featured many of the more colorful amenities banned in Mountain Lake.

A popular mantra of the time, repeated by current residents, was: "If you want to sin, go to Loch Lynn, for Jesus' sake, go to Mount Lake."

Five hotels and as many as 200 Victorian "cottages" were built to house the wealthy families that spent their summers at Mountain Lake Park.

A 5,000-seat auditorium drew such celebrities as orator William Jennings Bryan and President William Howard Taft.

Gwendolyn Johnson, 97, remembers as a child seeing Taft address a packed house in 1912, and the crowd's enthusiastic reaction. "They stood up and waved their handkerchiefs," she says. "It looked like a garden of lilies. That was a great day for Mountain Lake Park."

That may have been the park's peak of popularity.

The Chautauqua series of lectures and classes ended after World War I. But the resort still drew hundreds of families in the '30s and '40s who enjoyed swimming and boating or attending concerts in the auditorium.

Hayden fondly recalls the boardwalk and leafy shelter known as Pilgrim's Rest, traversed every day by residents on their way to the post office.

"That's where Willard and I did our courting," she says with a smile. They grew up here and stayed. Her husband Willard, who is retired, worked for a coal company.

The large wooden hotels where visitors lodged are gone -- burned or torn down -- as are many of Mountain Lake Park's other resort trappings. The community's lake has been drained, leaving only a pond and marshy area.

But the leafy quiet that drew summer visitors decades ago remains.

About two dozen of the century-old summer homes stand, updated with plumbing and electricity and occupied year-round in many cases.

Those old houses fill Hopwood Wooddell's days.

"This is better than golf for me," says the 81-year-old retired dentist, his eyes flashing through the sawdust coating his glasses. Wooddell, who spent much of his youth here before going away to school and work, is busy these days restoring his third old house.

Wooddell and his wife, Karen, 61, live down the street in the Ruhl Cottage, a spacious, meticulously restored Victorian home named for its original owners.

Upstairs, the couple has a massive wooden bed in which President Grover Cleveland reputedly slept with his new wife while honeymooning in 1886 in nearby Deer Park, one of the other rail-oriented resorts of the era.

New generation

Today, a new generation is being raised in the refuge of Mountain Lake Park.

Jamie Murphy, 11, lies in the street with his head under his father's car-carrier truck, fastening the license plate to the bumper. He pauses when asked what it's like to live here.

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