It’s a cliché worth repeating: The serendipitous travel discoveries are often the sweetest.
And who expects to explore a critical point in American history in a faded brick town of 20,000, tucked into the Appalachian Mountains of Western Maryland?
But that’s what I found in Cumberland, Md. The city once known as “Gateway to the West” offers an uncrowded peek into a time and place when railroads, canals and Jewish immigrant enterprise helped spur America’s growth.
About two hours west of Baltimore, Cumberland sits at the confluence of several major arteries. Landmarks from its heyday as a transit nexus — the mid-1800s through the early 20th century — led the National Park Service to create the Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary “All Aboard For Cumberland” (nps.gov/nr/travel/cumberland). Cumberlandians love to recall that George Washington slept here, at his Fort Cumberland headquarters, during the French and Indian War. A few decades later, shortly after the American Revolution, locals established Cumberland, naming the city after a son of Britain’s King George.
From Interstate 68, Cumberland rises out of the green mountains like a fairytale: brick houses, pointed roofs and church spires give the city a vintage skyline.
Decades of decline have frozen the region in time. Downtown Cumberland’s Historic District is a tidy agglomeration of red and white brick buildings in a mix of neoclassical, Revival and Renaissance-inspired styles typical of the era.
But walk around the town, and you’ll understand the prosperity that built these well-preserved temples to American industry. On the NPS itinerary, City Hall is among the few downtown landmarks in continuous, original use; the Second National Bank and Third National Bank have changed hands over time, their names and facades enduring as testaments to financial ambition.
In an era when Jewish-owned department stores defined accessible luxury, Cumberland-based Rosenbaum’s Department Store was a staple of Appalachian retail. The chain is now defunct, but its flagship location still sports bay windows and an exterior adorned with lion’s heads.
Elsewhere in the city’s downtown, the Fort Cumberland Hotel, a grand prewar institution, is now an apartment complex. And while the Embassy Theater is no longer a focus of weekend activity, to contemplate its lavish Art Deco architecture is to imagine how exciting moviegoing was when the Marx Brothers were onscreen.
Fueling all this prosperity was a transportation boom in the 19th century, when coal was a growing industry and Americans were turning their sights westward. Cumberland was a strategic way station between East Coast industry, Appalachian coal and the Midwestern rivers that fed fast-growing heartland cities.
America’s first highway was built west from Cumberland in the early 1800s, providing a route for legions of Conestoga wagons.
Remember the B&O Railroad from your Monopoly board? There’s a reason it was such a coveted property: When it launched in 1842, with trains carrying cargo to St. Louis and Chicago, it was the first of five railroads that put Cumberland on the map.
The Maryland town was also the western terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal, a historic waterway that continues to define the Mid-Atlantic. Today, the C&O’s well-preserved dirt paths and footbridges are a favorite of hikers, bikers and joggers.
Drawn to opportunity, Jewish and other immigrant families flocked to Western Maryland. Mills sprang up alongside the canal; hotels, saloons and stables were all in demand for dockworkers.
Cumberland’s first Jews arrived in 1816, and by the 1850s, a dozen families established B’er Chayim Congregation. The landmark synagogue, on the Historic Register route, was a hub of German Reform Judaism and is the oldest continuously operating shul in Maryland.
Faster trains put canal boats out of business. Today, you can explore the region’s heritage at Canal Place, centered on the restored Western Maryland Railroad Station in the heart of downtown.
Multiple activities take place around an inviting red-brick plaza that boasts a fountain, shops and cafés. Learn about the region’s history at the interactive exhibits at the C&O Canal Visitor Center, a small Park Service museum; see actual locks, gear and a real-life canal boat, “The Cumberland”; and jump on a train for a three-hour Western Maryland Scenic Railroad excursion, through the mountains to Frostburg and back.
Back at Canal Place, contemplate the Potomac River from a walkway on the site of an old railroad trestle that connects to the C&O towpath. The more ambitious can take the Great Allegheny Passage, a forested hiking trail maintained by the National Park Service that leads through the Appalachians, all the way to Pittsburgh.