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State to present geological showstopper


SIDELING HILL -- Maryland will be putting its rock collection on display in a big way on Washington County's Sideling Hill this week.

On Friday, as part of the state's official designation ceremonies for Interstate 68, the Sideling Hill Visitors Center will open, a $5 million geological showstopper.

"I think it's one of the premier road cuts in the northeastern United States," said Kenneth Schwarz of the Maryland Geological Survey.

The center, just west of Hancock on what is now U.S. 48, is on the westbound side of the highway, a little more than 90 minutes from the Baltimore metropolitan area.

A pedestrian bridge will allow travelers heading east to walk over the highway to the center.

The bridge itself is an attraction, as it will give people a good view of both sides of the road cut, which uncovered an impressive, colored layer of shale, sandstone and coal formed nearly 350 million years ago.

"To be able to walk across a walkway and get out in the middle of the cut and see the view is quite breathtaking," said Wallace Beaulieu, the State Highway Administration engineer who supervised the Interstate 68 project.

The state cut through Sideling Hill to avoid a series of dangerous curves on the old section of the National Pike -- U.S. 40 -- that had previously served as the road west. The walls of the cut rise about 360 feet above the highway.

The three-floor center will serve as both a traveler's way station, with restrooms and information, and a center for exhibits explaining the geology of the area, said Russ Ulrich, State Highway Administration spokesman.

"It is a unique center to Maryland and perhaps in all of the United States," Mr. Ulrich said. "We've gone beyond building the typical visitor's center. What we've created is a geological museum."

Officials believe the exhibit center will be more than a stop for travelers. "We see it as a destination in and of itself," Mr. Ulrich said.

The basement of the three-story exhibit center will be used as a lecture room where students on field trips can learn about the site. "It will be a major attraction for schools to come out on buses from the metropolitan areas and learn about the geology of Maryland, especially the western part of the state," Mr. Beaulieu said. "I envision a lot of people using this for education purposes."

What they will learn is how the mountains in Western Maryland were formed about 230 million years ago, when the American and African continents collided, Mr. Schwarz said. The compressional forces of that collision folded the Earth's surface "like pushing a pad of paper together," he said.

In this case, it bowed to make a U-shape downfold, known as a syncline, he said.

Friday's dedication, which is not open to the public and is scheduled to include such speakers as Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other dignitaries, will include the dedication of a memorial to Maryland's Vietnam veterans -- a plaque on the side of Sideling Hill.

Interstate 68 is being officially dedicated to the state's Vietnam veterans, Mr. Ulrich said.

After the Sideling Hill dedication Friday morning, officials will head west for the official designation ceremonies for Interstate 68, at the Rocky Gap interchange.

That program is open to the public and will include speakers, bands, antique cars and people dressed in costumes of the early Mr. Ulrich said.

The road dedication coincides with the opening of the Rocky Gap Music Festival, the three-day country music show held at the state park.

Development of Interstate 68

The following is a chronology of the evolution of the four-lane highway passing through Western Maryland that will be completed Friday and designated as Interstate 68:

1957 -- Improvements over Martin Mountain completed.

1958 -- Improvements over Polish Mountain completed.

1965 -- Congress passes the Appalachian Regional Development Act, which includes a highway system to foster economic development as a major part of that act.

1966 -- Two more segments completed, a 3-mile section just west of Hancock and a 1-mile stretch of the Cumberland Thruway, just east of Cumberland.

1967 -- A 3.6-mile section opened east of Green Ridge State Forest, from Mountain Road to Orleans Road.

1969 -- Another 3.6-mile section running west out of Cumberland to Volke Road completed.

1973 -- Opened from LaVale to Route 36 at Frostburg.

1974 -- Opened from Route 36 to Finzel Road interchange, two miles into Garrett County.

1975 -- A 14-mile segment opened from Keysers Ridge to the West Virginia border. At the same time, West Virginia dedicated 27 miles of its portion of the road running into Morgantown.

1976 -- A 13-mile section opened from Finzel Road to the Keysers Ridge interchange. This completed the 44-mile section of the freeway from Cumberland to West Virginia, a $126 million project.

Between 1976 and 1986, the remaining 19-mile stretch was the focus of studies and a bitter battle between environmentalists and state highway officials. The plans originally called for the road to take a chunk of the Green Ridge State Forest. That met with strong opposition from environmentalists, who favored an upgrading of U.S. 40. Though state officials won a court battle over the alignment, they re-evaluated the route and came up with a new alignment.

1986 -- The 8.7-mile Sideling Hill section is completed.

1987 -- The groundbreaking for the final 19 miles of the new National Freeway takes place.

Aug. 2, 1991 -- The final stretch of the road, to be called Interstate 68, is scheduled to be dedicated.

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