Reviving the National Road

Cooperation: Maryland and five states are angling for a federal title to help build tourism along U.S. 40.

July 18, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- Despite frenetic lives that propel Americans onto interstates, many still long for the nostalgic drive in the country, a bit of history, lovely scenery around a bend.

There's money in it, too.

Alabama recently proved that after winning a rare federal "All-American Road" title for the famous route that civil rights marchers followed through gently rolling farmland between Selma and Montgomery. A deluge of grants to bolster tourism and preserve the road's history followed.

And in the Victorian-style towns along Colorado's San Juan Skyway, which got the All-American designation in 1996, bed-and-breakfast inns and other tourist-fueled businesses are sprouting.

Maryland hopes to copy those successes soon -- in partnership with five other states -- by obtaining All-American Road status for this country's first highway, U.S. 40, the National Road.

The brainchild of George Washington, the road was the first federally funded highway -- and the route that opened the West.

It served the Underground Railroad and military movements in the Civil War. During the great auto touring decades of the early 1900s, it accommodated travelers at scenic picnic sites and mountaintop hotels. And much of its heritage is intact.

"We don't want the National Road to become a Disney-fied experience or artificial," says Fred Holycross, an Indiana historic preservationist heading the campaign. "We want to sell real America. We think it will be an economic boon all along the road, especially for the savvier towns."

The project emerges at a time of renewed interest in motor touring, which for the past five years has ranked second among Americans' favorite outdoor pastimes.

"With technology and the one-dimensional lives we all lead, people have the urge to discover where they came from," says Marci Ross of Maryland's Office of Tourism Development. "Roads are back in fashion again."

Grants and promotions

The All-American title, which could take two years to win, brings the opportunity for a basketful of federal grants to restore historic buildings along the route, protect adjacent lands, construct scenic overlooks and market the road to tourists.

It also guarantees national and international promotion by the Federal Highway Administration -- the latter particularly important as foreign visitors tire of big cities and begin venturing into America's heartland.

The nine U.S. roads that hold the designation have received an average of about $1 million in federal scenic byways funds a year for those purposes.

But the smartest marketers have obtained many times that, using it as justification for millions in federal, state, local and nonprofit agency contributions for cultural, historic and other projects.

"It's not just about dollars being shuffled into businesses," says Sharon Hurt Davidson of the National Scenic Byways program, which selects the roads. "It means the potential for a really increased quality of life along these roads. That's what these byways are looking for. They realize they've got something special, and they've got a story to tell."

A view to the past, future

The Town Hill Hotel -- perched east of Cumberland at an elevation of 1,595 feet and offering enchanting views of Allegany County's mountains -- has a story to tell and might just be the kind of place to benefit.

Not so many years ago, travelers filled the hotel on summer nights, drawn to the place described on postcards and in advertisements as "The Beauty Spot of Maryland."

The wooden benches at the Town Hill overlook are sadly dilapidated. Long gone is the gas pump attendant stationed out front in white starched shirt and bow tie. The hotel's restaurant is open only four hours a week for Sunday lunch.

Still, owner Hendrick Essers struggles to keep the place going 28 years after buying it. He delights in the rows of old photographs that show the hotel in livelier days.

The brewing All-American Road plan offers a glimmer of hope, he says.

"It's here," he says. "People just don't realize."

Along the 170 miles of U.S. 40 in Maryland, there are many other possibilities for such resurrections. Even now, the National Road presents the curious traveler every few miles with surprises.

Stop by the abandoned picnic area on a scenic shoulder of Sideling Hill, west of Hancock.

Its two large stone fireplaces for barbecues and five sheltered picnic tables have long gone unused and are now barricaded -- awaiting revival.

Or pause at churches that housed wounded Civil War soldiers; the country's best collection of horse-drawn carriages, in Frostburg; the elegant stone bridge over Conococheague Creek that in 1819 extended the National Road west from Hagerstown; the 1,000-foot-high "Lovers Leap" cliff atop the Narrows in Cumberland; or the R. H. Wilson & Son Country Store west of Hagerstown -- still a working store, selling wheels of cheese sliced in unrefrigerated glass cases, bolts of fabric off the shelves and ice-cold Coke in glass bottles from a cooler.

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