CUMBERLAND -- Once known for being at the end of a famous canal, this city is ready to open a new pathway, one that civic leaders hope will make it a recreation destination and infuse downtown businesses with cash.
Feet - hundreds of thousands of them - are expected to pedal and hike the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile converted railroad corridor that connects here with the C&O; Canal Towpath, providing a link between Washington and Pittsburgh.
Trail advocates and government officials will celebrate completion of the East Coast's longest rail trail tomorrow with a ribbon-cutting along the banks of the Potomac River, where the trail and the towpath meet.
Over the past two decades, Marylanders have come to embrace gently undulating rail trails as family-friendly recreation, where walkers and those taking leisurely bike rides feel safe and comfortable because amenities are never far away.
The state has two of the top 10 most popular rail trails in the nation. The 14-mile Baltimore and Annapolis Trail and the 22-mile Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County each attract 1 million users annually.
Supporters of the Great Allegheny Passage believe that the history and culture along Maryland's 20-mile portion of the trail will be a magnet for families looking for a different kind of weekend adventure.
The new trail, says David Lillard, former president of the American Hiking Society and author of trail guides, "is a great conservation story ... and destined to become one of the best-loved multi-use trails in America."
A city's revival
Even in its incomplete state, the rail trail was used last year by about 400,000 people, a number that is projected to triple with the completion, and that's music to the ears of Cumberland officials.
"The revival of the city is driven, in part, by the trail," says Mayor Lee Fiedler, who ordered bike racks installed on downtown street corners. "No one thought people with bikes would spend money, but they were wrong. Business is spreading back from the trail."
Two bed-and-breakfasts have opened with trail users in mind. The National Park Service is reviewing plans for a riverside campground. Wi-fi blankets the city's core. A historic railroad hauls bikes up the steepest trail grade to Frostburg. Last summer, weekend nights were filled with outdoor concerts and people eating at sidewalk cafes. A hotel with a bike repair shop is in the works.
"That's a sizable chunk of tourism for families, building a critical mass of things to do," says Richard Pfefferkorn, executive director of the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority in Cumberland.
This city of 21,000 has long been known as the terminus of the 185-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, built from 1828 to 1850 to ferry goods and passengers. But civic leaders acknowledge that that distinction hardly made their community a destination.
"In Cumberland, you have to have more than where people start and people stop. Before the trail, visitors would come in Friday afternoon for a matter of 20 minutes and be off on the towpath. The economic benefit was rather small," says Fiedler, a retired business executive in his second term.
City officials and merchants began to see a change last fall, when the Great Allegheny Passage closed to within a few miles of downtown. Although detours on local roads from Frostburg were hard and dangerous, people began making the effort.
Two years ago, Gail Shofer Hall, a former Baltimore resident, began booking upscale bicycle tours for middle-age weekend warriors "who want to be spoiled." In October, she opened The Inn on Decatur, four blocks from Mile Marker One, the trail's beginning.
"We're at the quasi-half point between Pittsburgh and Washington," she says. "You've pedaled more than 100 miles, you want a little downtime."
Outsiders took notice. Two regional hiker-biker guidebooks included the trail this year, and the Web site BikeWashington.org dubbed it "the crown jewel of the Mid-Atlantic rail trails."
The move to convert never-used or abandoned railroad corridors began in the 1960s, as people began to look for places to walk or bike away from motorized traffic.
Today, there are more than 13,000 miles of rail trails, with another 14,000 miles in the planning stages, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Maryland has 21 rail trails that cover 115 miles, with another 24 trails totaling 264 miles in the planning stages.
When the first section of the Great Allegheny Passage - a nine-mile stretch at Ohiopyle, Pa. - opened 20 years ago, "it showed that if you build these trails, they will be used by locals but also attract tourists," says Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, an umbrella for seven trail groups.
Momentum gathered. In fall 2002, Maryland officials spent $875,000 for 4.8 miles of right of way from the Mason-Dixon line to Frostburg.
But as they stitched the pieces together, trail advocates knew they'd have to deal with a gaping maw: the 3,300-foot Big Savage Tunnel, one mile north of the Maryland line. Built in 1911 and abandoned in 1975, the tunnel was dank and riddled with water damage, but it provided a vital bypass across the Eastern Continental Divide and through 2,375-foot- high Savage Mountain.
It took five years for the trail groups to raise $12 million to restore the tunnel, which opened in May. It is to be closed from December to April every year to keep the elements from destroying the walls, lighting and drainage system.
Trail work remains near Pittsburgh and McKeesport, and there's more to do to help towns create a smooth-running economic engine, Boxx says.
Towns along the trail are being encouraged to think of it as a second Main Street, and to begin improving hospitality and other services to take advantage of new business. Boxx envisions hiring a "circuit rider" to help communities develop marketing plans and plan joint events.
Fiedler says he can hardly wait until spring.
"It ties into the other things we're doing," says the mayor, sitting at a downtown coffee shop. "We're not a place you'll go to stay for a week, but if we can get you to stay two or three days, we'll be very happy."