Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in extreme northeast Washington County, is the sleepy, out-of-the-way community of Pen Mar, population 290.
More than a century ago, Pen Mar's existence was shaped by an amusement park that attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists from Baltimore and elsewhere each summer. Today, that park is long gone. But Pen Mar, at least in the minds of its longtime residents, is still very much a community defined by memories of Pen Mar Park.
"There was a time, when I was young, when everybody who lived in Pen Mar worked in the park," says Virginia Bruneske, 71. A lifelong Pen Mar resident, Mrs. Bruneske worked in the amusement park's photo gallery in her high school days.
Since the 1940s she has lived across the street from where the park stood. Her house, back in the 1930s, was the Point View Hotel. Run by her mother and father, it was one of more than a hundred hotels and boardinghouses that catered to the huge crowds -- sometimes 20,000 or more -- that filled Pen Mar each summer weekend.
"The day in March 1943 when they tore the park down was a sad day," Mrs. Bruneske recalls as she stares wistfully out her kitchen window at the site of the former amusement park. Today it's a county park, but it contains a small museum devoted to the original park.
As she stands by her window, it's almost as if Mrs. Bruneske is looking back through the years and can see the carousel spinning and hear the giddy laughter of the children on the
miniature roller coaster.
"At first we just couldn't believe it was gone. It had been here as long as we could remember," says Mrs. Bruneske. "You'd hear people say, 'Now what will we do on Sunday?' It seemed like everybody who lived up here back then would come to the park every Sunday. Just to sit on the benches and meet their friends, if nothing else."
"Just coming up here was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Earl Blair, 78. A retired government worker, Mr. Blair recalls riding the trolley as a youngster to the park from his home in nearby Waynesboro, Pa. The park was down in the valley and the trolley ride was a nickel.
When he was a little older Mr. Blair danced to the big bands that played in the park's pavilion. These days he still stops by the present-day park whenever he can, to peruse the photos, souvenirs and other artifacts in the little museum, and to take in the spectacular view from the overlook. "I can close my eyes and still see everything as it was back then," he says, smiling.
Pen Mar is literally in the midst of the ruins of the old park, which flourished from the 1870s until well into this century. The foundation of the carousel can still be seen next to a swing set in the new park. In the vacant lot across the street from Mrs. Bruneske's house, foundation stones and worn granite steps from one of the area's stately hotels are still visible.
When one walks Pen Mar's silent, narrow streets today it's hard to imagine they were once packed with thousands of tourists. Yet when one stands at the scenic overlook in the little park, it's easy to see why John Mifflin Hood, founder of the Western Maryland Railroad, chose this site in 1871 for the large amusement park that would help finance his railroad's westward expansion from Baltimore.
The northward view of Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley, 1,400 feet below, and the Tuscarora Mountains, 30 miles away, is simply breathtaking. The Appalachian Trail also passes through the park, then meanders up the mountain to nearby High Rock, which offers an equally spectacular view of 22 counties in four states.
By the turn of the century Hood's amusement park was booming. Attractions included a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, a penny arcade, a shooting gallery, a movie theater, a beer garden and a miniature train.
The park, along with the first-class hotels that sprang up in the surrounding area, drew regular folks and celebrities from President Grover Cleveland and Dr. Walter Reed to presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth and actress Joan Crawford. the very early days of the 20th century the Pen Mar area was one of the most popular resorts in the eastern United States.
Today, quite a few of Pen Mar's newest residents -- people who commute to nearby Waynesboro or Fort Ritchie, or even Washington, D.C., 70 miles southeast -- know little of the old amusement park beyond the exhibits in the little museum. Yet to folks like Earl Blair, Mrs. Bruneske and her cousin Creston Bumbaugh, 68, it seems only yesterday that the railroad company sent in wrecking crews by night to burn and bulldoze the park to rubble. (The railroad had been losing money on the park for years.)
Today Mr. Bumbaugh visits the site often. As a teen-ager he worked on the park carousel, and like Mrs. Bruneske, he is a walking encyclopedia today on the park's history. He can still pace off near-exact dimensions of the long-gone carousel, fun house and roller coaster.
It was through the efforts of these devotees and others that the new, 46-acre Pen Mar County Park was established in 1977 -- the centennial of the original park's opening. Once again, on summer nights big bands hold forth in the new pavilion that was built at the overlook, and locals gather on the park benches and picnic tables to visit and reminisce.
"Even the people who leave Pen Mar, most of them come back often to visit," says Mrs. Bruneske. "It's still like a big family up here. I used to have a neighbor who would say that when God made heaven he started out and made a little piece of it here in Pen Mar. I think he was right. I can't imagine a nicer place to live."