Cumberland: A pleasant mountain getaway

Old rail and canal town now caters to hikers, bikers and history buffs

Short Hop

October 24, 2004|By John Woestendiek and Erika Hobbs

Whether you're a hiker or bicyclist, history buff or railroad enthusiast, leaf-peeper or craft-seeker, the town of Cumberland has two words for you.

Exit.

Now.

Even if it's just a spur-of-the-moment getaway to see the fast-fading remnants of Western Maryland's fall foliage, Cumberland -- whether you're in Baltimore, Washington or Pittsburgh -- is less than a three-hour drive. You can leave after work and get there in time for dinner. And don't worry about finding Cumberland in the dark.

They leave the lights on for you.

The steeples of all 14 Cumberland churches, as well as the Allegany County Courthouse spire, are lighted at night under a program started in 1995 -- partly for aesthetic reasons, partly as advertising, partly to improve morale in the industrially withered but geographically endowed mountain town.

"The town at the time was losing a lot of its oomph, a lot of its self-confidence," said Ed Mullaney, Cumberland's downtown manager and the coordinator of the steeple-lighting effort. "We wanted to bring that pride back, and bring in tourists. Cumberland has always been the town with all the churches that you pass on your way to someplace else."

Fitting as that might be for a town that once thrived as a transportation hub, once was the second largest city in Maryland, and once called itself "The Gateway to the West," it doesn't pay the bills -- something many Cumberlanders have been harder pressed to do since the coal, railroad, textile, tire, brewing and glass industries left town.

After that industrial exodus -- the last glass company pulled out in the early 1990s -- the city, county and state began working in earnest to reinvent Cumberland as a travel destination. But the route to rebirth, by way of tourism, has been long, snarled and bumpy -- not at all like I-68, the interstate highway that smoothly slices through the high green hills of Cumberland, filled with passengers having conversations like this:

"Look at all the church steeples."

"What? My ears are popping; I can't hear you."

"It's kind of a gritty, blue-collar-looking town."

"What? Are your ears popping?"

"Stopping? No. Pretty town, though."

Were you to get off the interstate, say at Exit 43A, make a right, then another on Cumberland's oldest road, Greene Street, you'd spot the Inn at Walnut Bottom, a quaint, clean and comfortable bed and breakfast that makes a good base for a weekend of exploring the town's burgeoning charms.

Meal and massage

Just blocks from the center of downtown, the C&O Canal and Cumberland's 1913 train depot, the 12-bedroom inn occupies two adjoining homes. One was built in 1820; the other is an 1890 Queen Anne style home constructed on the ground where Ulysses S. Grant's wife, Julia Dent, grew up in a log cabin.

While George Washington might not have slept right here -- rest assured, there are plenty of other places in town where he did -- you can, with all the comforts of home, and then some, provided by the inn's owner, Kirsten Hansen.

Hansen is an energetic woman with a flair for baking and a degree in afspaending, a form of Danish massage. In the morning, she kneads the dough; in the afternoon, the customers.

Nine years ago, Hansen, who grew up on a poultry farm in the south of Denmark, and her husband, Grant Irvin, a hospital administrator she met at a Matisse exhibit in Copenhagen, moved from Michigan and bought three adjoining homes in Cumberland, living in one and restoring the two others as a bed and breakfast.

Breakfast is served in the stone-walled basement of the inn, cavelike but bright, with fresh flowers and lighted candles on each table. Hansen makes breads, muffins, coffeecakes and granola from scratch each morning. They are served with cups of fresh fruit and a choice of hot entrees, including an orange French toast that melts, with a zing, in your mouth.

One can eat light, or not so light, before hitting the sidewalk to see Cumberland's attractions, some of which are still works in progress, most of which are related to the town's transportation heritage.

Cumberland's biggest draw is the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, opened in 1988.

Powered by steam and diesel locomotives, the train winds through the Allegheny Mountains on a 32-mile round trip from Cumberland to Frostburg, passing through the Narrows, a mile-long gorge between Hay-stack and Wills mountains; past the local lovers' leap, a sand-stone cliff from which an Indian chief's daughter and her white beau leapt to their deaths (the story has at least as many versions as Allegheny does spellings); past Bone Cave and Helmstetter's Horse Shoe Curve; and through Piney Mountain's Brush Tunnel.

Passengers, while allowed to stand between cars for an open-air view, are told to "please refrain from leaning out the vestibule window," as the passage is narrow in spots. They are also advised to wear eye protection. Coal cinders spew from the train's locomotive. Even if they don't get in your eyes, you'll be picking them out of your hair for hours.

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