This steam train chugs through scenic Western Maryland

  • Travel
  • Wednesday, 04 Nov 2015

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Cumberland, Maryland. - Wikimedia Commons

A visit to this small Western Maryland city in the United States really can be like a trip back in time, and not just because you can ride on a train pulled by a working steam locomotive.

That acclaimed attraction, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, is what drew us to take our eight-year-old son on a trip earlier this month. We arrived on a Thursday so we could make some of the Downtown Cumberland Farmers Market that also sets up on Saturdays.

We strolled along the bricks of the pedestrian walkway that is Baltimore Street, the charming heart of Cumberland’s downtown.

We only looked at all the beautiful blackberries and other produce, flowers and baked goods – including local pepperoni rolls – but couldn’t resist a Handcrafted Western Maryland Lemonade. The stand offers flavours ranging from watermelon to black-eyed Susan to pawpaw, but our son chose the cherry for the maraschino cherry floating in the hand-dated bottle’s neck.

Serving hot dogs since 1918

Then it was time for lunch – at really the only place you have to eat here: Curtis’ Famous Weiners on North Liberty Street.

Curtis’ and its closed sister just a few doors down, Coney Island Lunch, have been serving hot dogs with famous meat sauce, minced onions and mustard since 1918. The place seems little changed, including the prices, which is partially why there was a line of people when we squeezed in. We sat down at the counter and ordered three weiners, fries and a cherry Coke from a short menu of sandwiches and drinks that include the Chocolate Rickey, a chocolate milk over ice.

The sign at the Western Maryland Railway station stating the times for the arrival of the train. Photo: TNS
The sign at the Western Maryland Railway station stating the times for the arrival of the train. Photo: TNS

We loved watching proprietor Gino Giatras lining up dogs on his arm to dress them and servers deftly wrapping them in wax paper. The bill was barely US$12 (RM51), which included a fourth weiner we couldn’t resist splitting.

We continued strolling around the “Queen City” (population about 20,000), which started out as Fort Cumberland back in George Washington’s day. It looks like a model-railroad town, criss-crossed with train tracks and bridges crossing Will’s Creek and the Potomac River, with lots of steeples and pretty old buildings and homes on its hills and the blue-green Alleghenies rising up all around.

Gateway to the West

One red-brick landmark is the former Western Maryland Railway station, built in 1913. It’s the centrepiece of Canal Place, which celebrates the history of this one-time “gateway to the West”. The railroads won out, but the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Visitors Center here documents a slightly earlier time when freight moved to and from Washington DC, on long boats on a canal that at one point was meant to extend all the way to Pittsburgh.

These days, a lot of the traffic rolls through on the tires of bicycles piloted by intrepid travellers on the Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail along railroad right-of-way that connects Pittsburgh and Washington. We passed many cyclists as we walked up the steps to the train station’s platform to watch the Thursday train come in.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroads steam locomotive 734 pauses in Cumberland, Maryland, after a recent round trip to Frostburg, Maryland. Photo: TNS
The Western Maryland Scenic Railroads steam locomotive 734 pauses in Cumberland, Maryland, after a recent round trip to Frostburg, Maryland. Photo: TNS

That train was pulled by a newer, diesel-powered locomotive. We’d purposefully purchased our tickets for Friday’s train, which is pulled by steam engine 734. That one was built in 1916 – just before Coney Island Lunch started serving those weiners – to work on Michigan’s Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad uses 734 to pull some of its excursion trains that run between Cumberland and Frostburg, Maryland. It’s a 51km round trip that takes three-and-a-half hours, from 11.30am to 3pm, May into December.

Frozen custard

Later that day, we strolled back into downtown to visit the soda fountain inside Queen City Creamery. That local destination makes three flavours of frozen custard daily. Our son ordered a marshmallow sundae, and my wife couldn’t resist trying another old-timey offering: A chocolate phosphate – chocolate-syrup-flavoured soda water.

The next morning, we were back at the train station. A plume of black smoke announced the approach of the steam locomotive as it crossed over the Potomac from its headquarters in Ridgeley, West Virginia. The contraption was a spectacle, especially as it eased up to the station and stopped in a cloud of white steam that swirled around spectators’ legs. Standing beside this hissing, growling giant – nickname, Mountain Thunder – while its tender filled with water for the trip fascinated our son and us.

Wills Creek in Cumberland, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Kiser
Wills Creek in Cumberland, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Kiser

Running out of steam

There are plenty of tourist trains out there, but relatively few are run with real, antique steam locomotives, in part because they are expensive to restore and maintain. In fact, after this season’s fall, foliage and North Pole Experience trips are done, the company is taking 734 out of service for a federally mandated inspection and rebuild, so it’s on its “farewell for now” tour. The railroad plans to run a different steam locomotive next year: Chesapeake & Ohio 1309 that it acquired last year from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. The last one built by Baldwin Locomotive Works for a domestic railroad, the restored locomotive will be the largest articulated steam locomotive in regular operation in the United States.

After we watched an engineer work his oil can over 734 and the rest of the crew getting ready to go, the conductor called: “All aboard!” and we filed to our bench seats. Other guests had reserved reclining seats, and still others had cushy chairs in an adults-only lounge car where you can sip souvenir glasses of wine and beer. Some passengers had booked a special history trip that day that included lunch in the dining car. But we were happy munching Skittles from our snack bar as the train pulled out and headed up into the Narrows between Will’s and Haystack mountains.

Nature at its best

The mountain scenery is spectacular, especially when viewed out of the open windows between train cars or in one partial baggage car, used to transport bikes for cyclists who might make the return trip on the adjacent Allegheny Passage.

But just like in the olden days, you risk getting cinders in your eyes from the coal smoke. Certainly you’ll have some black powder on your shoulders.

The conductor, Jim May, punching tickets on a standard coach car of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Photo: TNS
The conductor, Jim May, punching tickets on a standard coach car of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Photo: TNS

Before we knew it, we were pulling up to the pretty depot in Frostburg, where we were met by a Civil War re-enactor and others in period costume. Passengers disembarked to watch the steam locomotive get turned around on a big turntable so it can chug to what was the back of the train for the return trip.

We had about one-and-a-half hours to explore Frostburg, and free admission with our train tickets to the Thresher Carriage Museum right at the depot. But it being lunch time, we made a beeline for the Trail Inn Bed & Breakfast just across the tracks, which offers train passengers an express menu for US$9.99 (RM42.70) – your choice of pulled pork, beef brisket or chicken breast, and two side dishes (mac-and-cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, fruit salad). It was fast and very good, washed down with soda and a cold bottle of Heavy Seas IPA.

The 88 steps

Here, the rail line continues through a tunnel underneath the main drag of Frostburg, which passengers reach by climbing 88 wooden steps and a hilly street. It’s also a fetching business district, stretched along the National Road, but we only had time to walk to the far end at the 1896 Failingers Hotel Gunter (we’d initially considered staying there overnight).

We popped into one shop to buy our son a few souvenir video games, then headed back down to take a quick spin through the carriage museum, and we were glad we did.

Except for the fact that our son got stung twice by a hornet, the trip back was uneventful and relaxing, as the train rocked and swayed on the slow downhill run, every now and then blowing its steam whistle for motorists, cyclists and spectators along the route. We could better hear some of the narration over the speakers, and I was glad to look to the right in time to see the opening for Bone Cave, a treasure-trove found in 1912 full of fossils that go waaay back in time – about 200,000 years.

We arrived in Cumberland just after 3pm and, like lots of other passengers, we lingered in the past for a bit, taking photos and videos of the locomotive. I used my phone’s sepia setting to take a shot that looks like it could have been taken circa 1915.

Then, we hopped in the car for the drive back to Pittsburgh and the current century. – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune News Services

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