Cumberland. -- The first train from Baltimore arrived in Cumberland 150 years ago this week and the residents are celebrating the event with entertainment, speeches, and excursions, much as they did originally.
While the railroad's influence has grown full and waned in the intervening years, producing vast changes at either end of the line and throughout the territory in between, it is still a powerful presence in western Maryland. Fifty trains a day, on an average, pass through Cumberland. They carry more than 100 million gross tons of freight annually. (Most are unit coal trains.) Passengers still get off in the center of town, although no longer in grand style. CSX Corporation's 840 jobs and $26 million annual payroll make it the largest employer in Cumberland proper, and second to Westvaco Corporation in Allegany County.
Maryland Railfest, the sponsoring organization, inaugurated the week's events by re-enacting the arrival of the first train in Cumberland, using the Lafayette, the replica of an 1837 steam locomotive from the B&O; Railroad Museum in Baltimore, pulling two vintage coaches with some two dozen passengers aboard. More than 1,000 people have signed up for two weekend rail excursions that will cross the mountain grades to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and Grafton, West Virginia. In between, seafood festivals and exhibits are planned.
There were only about twice as many people in the cars when the real event took place on November 3, 1842. It was somewhat anticlimactic. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was drained, financially and physically, after its three-year, $3.5 million effort to lay a track through 97 miles of rugged Appalachian foothills and around the looping bends of the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry. The construction took place during a depression, the Panic of 1837. The company decided it could not afford a public ceremony at Cumberland and instead offered politicians and stockholders one free ride apiece.
Between 30 and 40 people rode the first train when it pulled in about 5 p.m., past the spectators and musicians, to the place where the tracks met the National Road (Baltimore Street). Business had been suspended all day as Cumberland awaited the train, but many of the new arrivals climbed almost immediately into stagecoaches and left to visit the coal mines near Frostburg or the scenic and romantic "Narrows" of Wills Creek above the town.
With the appearance of the first locomotive in Cumberland in 1842, the three ingredients of the Industrial Revolution -- coal, iron and the steam engine -- coalesced at the point, the farthest west yet reached by a major American railroad.
Local coal and iron companies eagerly anticipated the arrival of a form of transportation that would allow them to ship their products economically. Yet what they really wanted was the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, because it was believed (to some extent by the B&O; itself) that railroads had insufficient capacity to carry heavy materials. The Baltimore and Ohio was slow to engage in the coal trade, but by the time the C&O; Canal finally stumbled exhausted into Cumberland eight years later, the coal and iron companies had begun to ship their products by rail.
Cumberland was also the place where the three major forms of 19th-century transportation -- the highway, the railroad and the canal -- came together by 1850. The decade between the railroad's coming and its completion to the Ohio River in 1853 was the first real boom period for Cumberland, founded in 1787. Ten years before the first train arrived, Cumberland had 1,000 people; less than ten years after, more than 6,000. In one 18-month period, the population doubled. New hotels, mills and warehouses blossomed along Baltimore and Mechanic streets, near the railroad and stage depots, and the homes of the merchants began their stately march over the hill on Washington Street.
During this early period, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had an iron grip on transportation. It controlled rates to the local mining companies, on the unfinished canal, which it supplied with coal, and even dictated to the National Road stage companies whose six-horse coaches raced over the Allegheny mountains from Cumberland to Wheeling and Pittsburgh in 16 hours. The railroad set their starting and running times, their through fares, their passenger and baggage limits, and levied a $50 penalty for each infraction. The canal retaliated vigorously later in the 19th century, and the highway in the 20th, but the railroad continues to be a powerful influence in Cumberland.
The first depot was built sometime in the 1840s alongside the Revere House, a hotel, located near the intersection of the railroad and Baltimore Street. In 1867, the B&O; built a rolling mill in Cumberland to produce rails and five years later erected the magnificent four-story Queen City Hotel, with a ballroom, cupola and beautiful cast-iron porches. In 1896 the company completed construction of its major repair shops, yards and terminal structures for the three divisions of the railroad that meet at Cumberland.
By the first decade of this century, the B&O;, with 2,000 workers, was the largest employer in town. Twenty trains a day stopped at the station and there were as many hotels, including the Queen City. Between 1890 and 1920, the population tripled and the downtown prospered.
More recently, Cumberland has suffered major plant closings and population loss. The senseless demolition in 1971 of the Queen City Hotel, "the finest remaining station-hotel in the United States and an outstanding building of excellent design," according to a noted architectural historian, was an act of corporate and municipal vandalism that ranks proportionately with New York's destruction of Pennsylvania Station.
But the railroad itself remains a dominant economic factor. Since 1987, when CSX Corporation completely absorbed the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it has invested $8.5 million in a new car-repair facility and a new inspection yard for unit coal trains in Cumberland. Its 450-man locomotive-repair shop there maintains one fourth of the company's 3,100 diesel engines. The company recently opened a school for locomotive engineers. And that is indeed cause for celebration.
James D. Dilts is a Balltimore railroad historian and free-lance writer.