W. Md. train losing subsidy, gaining bicyclists

Scenic railroad shares place in rising Cumberland tourism


CUMBERLAND -- As the 1916 locomotive pulled up, smoke billowing and brass bell clanging, the crowd at the station watched in a kind of solemn wonder.

Little boys in Thomas the Tank Engine sneakers stood on tiptoe. So did white-haired men. Rail fans took photos. And Zachary Overfield, 5, tugged at his mother to get a closer look at the full-size steam engine.

"He's been dying to ride a real train," said Chandra Overfield of Morgantown, W.Va.

For 17 years, this historic coal-fired train has taken tourists on breathtaking trips through the Allegheny Mountains. Now, after the state invested tens of millions into creating a tourism industry here, the best-known attraction faces a cloudy future.

Not only is the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad about to lose a $112,500 state subsidy, but its operators have to figure out how to run the train safely beside a new bike trail.

It's an odd turn of events for this depressed but picturesque region in Western Maryland that has tried for more than a decade to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. For only now, after the state gambled on a golf resort and other speculative ventures, are tourists starting to show up.

Downtown Cumberland has long been deserted and lined with empty, deteriorating buildings. But in the past year, several upscale restaurants, a coffee bar and an elegant chocolate shop have opened.

Growing numbers of families from big cities escape here on weekends. Hikers and campers head to a nearby forest. And tens of thousands of bicyclists come to ride the flat, shaded paths that stretch for miles beside the C&O Canal and the long-defunct Western Maryland Railway line.

"I call it a comfort feel," said Barbara Buehl, executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce. "When you come to Cumberland, it's old-fashioned, like Sunday dinner."

Tourism began picking up as people vacationed closer to home after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said. And it continues: Buehl estimates an annual 300,000 people vacation here.

Green Ridge State Forest, a 44,000-acre preserve east of Cumberland, reported 100,000 visitors last year. The railroad drew 30,000. Ridership increased 20 percent or more in recent months, partly because news of the railroad's troubles brought out crowds of train fans.

Growth is slow

True, tourist turnout has yet to live up to expectations at the two biggest state-backed attractions. Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, a $55 million state-financed resort outside Cumberland, has had disappointing bookings. Shops also were slow to open at Canal Place, which has yet to see water flow into a section of the C&O Canal that is supposed to someday feature authentic mule barges.

But Allegany County's 1,200 hotel rooms are filling up more frequently, especially during the fall foliage season. Room-tax revenues rose 27 percent from 2003 to 2004 and then 15 percent last year. Cumberland has only one major downtown hotel, a Holiday Inn, but a hotel developer is eyeing a spot overlooking the canal.

Kirsten Hansen, owner of the Inn at Walnut Bottom, a cozy bed-and-breakfast in downtown Cumberland, is "busy" and delighted.

"People come from all over the country to ride on the towpath," she said. "I just sent some bikers off this morning."

It's fitting. Cumberland once billed itself as the "Gateway to the West" and flourished as a railroad, coal mining and transportation center. Built as a trading post at a mountain pass, the town boomed in the early 20th century, only to see its railroads, mines and factories go out of business.

The textile factory closed in 1983, the tire plant in 1987. By the early 1990s, when the last glass company pulled out, few locals saw a reason to stay. The city, which was Maryland's second-largest in 1938 with 38,000 people, shrank to barely 21,000.

Its old transportation routes, though, have become a magnet for a new kind of tourist: Bicyclists. Cyclists of all ages ride the canal towpath, which stretches for 184.5 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown. Others arrive from the Allegheny Highlands Trail, which starts in Pittsburgh, Pa., 150 miles away.

Gene Moore, who biked the then-bumpy towpath as a boy, pulled up past a new bike shop at Canal Place to marvel at the number of fellow cyclists.

"I've seen more people today in an hour and half than I used to see all day riding the towpath," said Moore, 51, an architect who now lives in Asheville, N.C.

Friday nights, crowds sip drinks at outdoor cafes and listen to free concerts on Baltimore Street.

Property values are going up; one building, auctioned by the sheriff for $10,000 in 1996, recently sold for $280,000. Investors are buying the 19th-century buildings, many of them vacant department stores, pulling off vinyl siding and restoring beautiful brick facades. New shops are opening; so are artist lofts.

"There used to be no reason to come here," Mayor Lee N. Fiedler said as he strolled down the brick pedestrian walk on Baltimore Street. "Now there is."

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