Sunday, December 6, 2009

Winter Arrives in the Alleghenies

Sally Ann and I took advantage of the long Thanksgiving weekend to escape the rigors and routines of life in the environs of Washington, DC and to travel into the mountains of western Maryland. We had originally planned to spend the holiday weekend on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, on Maryland’s Atlantic shoreline, but the remnants of Hurricane Ida, coupled with a fierce nor-easter off the Mid-Atlantic coast, eroded the beaches and flooded the wildlife refuges we hoped to visit. So it was off to the mountains instead.

Maryland is a fascinating state. Ranked 42nd in area (almost a fifth of it covered by water, thanks to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States), it stretches nearly 250 miles from the Atlantic coastal plain and the Delmarva Peninsula, in the east, to the Appalachian Plateau, in the west. Our trip would afford us an opportunity to sample this geographical diversity.

The sun was shining as we departed home, and it looked like it was going to be a nice day as we drove northwest toward Frederick and into the Maryland Piedmont. But as we approached the parallel running 1000-foot ridges and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond Frederick, the sky turned partly cloudy and then completely overcast by the time we reached Hagerstown situated at the far northern reaches of the Shenendoah Valley and the easternmost ridge lines of the Appalachian Mountains. Here we traveled beyond autumn’s final gasps of color. The leaves had fallen and the bare branches of winter mixed with the mountain spruce. Beyond Hagerstown we moved in the Valley and Mountain Appalachians where summits reach 2000 feet in elevation. Sprinkles began to spot the windshield as the surrounding mountain tops began to disappear into the mist.

When we reached Hancock, where Maryland narrows to just over a mile between the Mason-Dixon Line delineating the border with Pennsylvania and the Potomac River and the boundary with West Virginia, the rain began to fall harder and there was the telltale tick of ice crystals on the windshield as we passed across the excavated notch through 2300-foot Sideling Hill six miles west of town. The rain remained with us as we continued west through a succession of valleys and across cloud-covered ridge lines, past Cumberland until we arrived at Frostburg, a few miles farther west. Here the rain gave way to snow showers as we arrived in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Plateau. We stopped for lunch on the rooftop of Maryland.

We ate at the Princess Restaurant, on Main Street. Beyond its rather nondescript fascade, this long, narrow wood-paneled establishment, a luncheon counter with fixed stools down one side and several wooden booths outfitted with individual small jukeboxes along the other, has been a fixture in downtown Frostburg since 1939. The place still looks very much like it did on June 21, 1953, when former President Harry Truman and his wife Bess, on their own road trip from their home in western Missouri to Washington, their first since he left office in January 1952, stopped here for lunch. The booth they sat in is marked with a photograph and a small metal plague on the wall above it. We sat at the counter across from the presidential booth and enjoyed a hearty and reasonably priced meal while I flipped through a copy of Matthew Algeo’s recently published Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure (Chicago Review Press, 2009) which I had just purchased in a bookstore across the street. It details the Truman’s trip from Independence, Missouri to Washington and return, including an interesting chapter on their mealtime sojourn in Frostburg.

Afterwards, we explored the Hotel Gunter on Main Street. Originally built in 1886 and opened the following year as the Hotel Gladstone, it was a grand hostelry in its time with 100 rooms and a host of services available to its guests, including its own jail in the basement where prisoners being transported were held while their guards stayed upstairs. There was also a cockfighting arena which later gave way to a speakeasy during Prohibition. The hotel went through hard times and was sold to William Gunter in 1903, and named in his honor in 1925, but it never again experienced the grandeur of its past as it fell into disrepair. Purchased by its present owners in 1986, it underwent massive renovations and it now has 17 hotel rooms and 19 apartments. As we wandered through the various rooms, all of which were decorated to the nines for the holidays, one could begin to sense what it must have looked like in its heyday. There are not many places like this left in small town America.

The snow showers continued as we departed Frostburg and the ground turned white as we climbed the eastern elevations of 2600-foot Big Savage Mountain marking the Eastern Continental Divide. Passing across more valleys and ridges we soon arrived at the Casselman River (formerly known as both the Little Youghiogheny and Castleman’s River). Here, on June 19, 1755, British General Edward Braddock, along with Colonel George Washington of the colonial Virginia militia, forded the river at what was then called "Little Crossings" with elements of the largest British army ever assembled in North America for what turned out to be an ill-fated expedition from Fort Cumberland, on the upper Potomac, to force the French and their Native American allies out of Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to form the Ohio River) some 60 miles to the northwest.

The snow was falling in earnest as we walked across the 80-foot stone bridge erected at the ford in 1813. It was the longest single span stone arch bridge in the world when it was part of the National Road, the first federally financed road constructed in the United States in the early years of the 19th century. This road was authorized by Congress in 1806 and construction began in 1811. The first section ran from Cumberland to Wheeling, West Virginia, and the National Road was eventually extended to Vandalia, the old state capital in central Illinois. The bridge remained in use until 1933 when Route 40, as the National Road was then called, was improved and rerouted over a new bridge just a river stone’s throw away. The old bridge now links a small riverside park with an artisan village made up of log buildings from the colonial period. It was easy to go back in time as we wandered those snow-hushed paths through the village and across the bridge.

The nearby Casselman Inn, just up the hill in Grantsville, was our home away from home for the next two nights. The historic Federal-style section of the inn was constructed in 1824 and has been providing lodging and meals to travelers along the National Road/Route 40 since then. We found shelter from the gusting winds that produced occasional white-outs as the snow continued to fall and accumulate.

The snow had ended when we awoke the following morning; almost five inches had accumulated overnight. The winds continued to gust and here on this high, exposed ridge line there was little to stand in its way. We joined others for a pleasant country breakfast on the ground floor of the inn, and afterward we set off to explore the snow-covered countryside as we made our way into the southern sections of Maryland’s Garrett county. This area has long been beyond the pale as far as the rest of Maryland goes. Other than the National Road though its northern region, what remained of far western Maryland did not develop until the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed through these mountains in the mid-19th century bringing immigrant families to cut timber and to work the local coal mines. The coal and timber industries have now largely been replaced by small family farms, antique stores and tourism.

We eventually passed though Oakland, the county seat and the "metropolis" of western Maryland. It holds the distinction of being home to the coldest temperature ever recorded in Maryland . . . -40F . . . in 1912. From there we traveled down into the far southwestern corner of Maryland’s panhandle and the western slope of Backbone Mountain, the state’s highest point at 3,360 feet above sea level. The mountain’s southern slope is situated mostly in neighboring West Virginia (Hoye Crest, Maryland’s high point is located on a few hundred feet inside the state boundary) where we passed through the small community of Silver Lake, home to the purportedly smallest church and post office in the Lower 48 states. We continued back up the mountain where we came across the Mountaineer Wind Farm. Here 44 giant wind turbines reach well over 300 feet into the wind currents sweeping over this prominent ridge of the Potomac Highlands. These turbines generate enough electricity to light up over 100,000 homes. Developers are saying that as many as 1,000 similar wind turbines might one day dot Maryland's mountain ridges. There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground here and the trees were coated in a white, icy glaze and stood in stark contrast to the vivid blue sky.

As we crested the final ridge we pass by the site of the original Fairfax Stone at an elevation of 3,140 feet. This surveyor’s marker was placed here in 1746 to determine the boundary of colonial Maryland and Virginia when these lands were largely unsurveyed. Here begins the headwaters of the Northern Branch of the Potomac River which forms the boundary between Maryland and West Virginia, and later Virginia, before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout (the South Branch rises at the southern end of the Highlands near the present-day boundary between Virginia and West Virginia). A line running north from the stone to the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania marks the western boundary of Maryland. Also nearby are the headwaters of the Youghiogheny River, which flows north and west until it joins the Monongahela River south of where that river joining the Allegheny River, in Pittsburgh, to give birth to the Ohio River which then flows to the Mississippi.

We drove along the banks of the North Branch of the Potomac on the northern fringe of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands which constitutes most of that state’s "panhandle. We passed through small, unincorporated former mining and timber towns like Kempton, Henry, Bobbin, Bayard and Gormania; bitter reminders of the mostly defunct coal industry which at one time was the bread and butter of the families that continue to people this hardscrabble landscape where unemployment approaches 25%. About the only industry left along this section of the river is the large paper mill located several miles farther down river at the "Tri-Towns" of Luke and Westernport, Maryland, and Piedmont, West Virginia. Quite a contrast to the ski resorts and other tourist destinations located nearby. At Gormania we crossed back into Maryland on U.S. Route 50 and traveled back over the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of just over 3000 feet along the northern ridges of Backbone Mountain. Soon we had returned to Oakland on our way to Deep Creek Lake a few miles to the north.

Deep Creek Lake, while beautifully situated among the hills and valleys of western Garrett County, is a tourist destination gone amuck. Most of the shoreline is stacked with large and rather ostentatious (read "ugly") "cottages." Route 219 has become a hodgepodge of strip malls, pizza parlors, ski shops (the Wisp ski resort is located above the lake), shoreline condominiums, land and realty offices, along with restaurants and sports bars servicing the seasonal migrants to the area. We were happy to return to the more sedate environs around Grantsville. Much of the snow that had fallen previous day and overnight had melted.

The next day we knew we would have to fight the holiday traffic as we returned home to the Washington area. At least we would not have to worry about the weather. Winter had arrived in the Allegheny Mountains and just as quickly the snow had disappeared. Before heading home, however, we took advantage of a beautiful day to explore deeper into the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, following the route of General Braddock and George Washington as they sought to send the French packing and to establish British hegemony over the area (more on this next week).

As it turns out, we did not have to drive into the far western mountains of Maryland to experience the onset of winter. A fast moving coastal storm swept through the Mid-Atlantic this weekend bringing up to six inches of snow to some places. Between two and three inches fell in the great DC metro area, and we drove through some particularly heavy squalls on our way to and from Annapolis yesterday evening. Much of it will melt today as the warmer temperatures return, but for a brief magical time it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

NEXT: Along the Edge of Two Empires: A Road Trip Into the Past


  1. Steve,

    I know many of these places and it was good to see your fine coverage. Stop by Paw Paw the next time. Hope you and Sally Ann enjoy the rest of the holiday season.