The first time Pansye Atkinson drove past the road sign on U.S. Alternate 40 in Garrett County, she did a double take.
Does that really say Negro Mountain?
It sure does, and the name has stuck - with occasional objection - for more than 200 years.
"It's a head-turner," said Atkinson, a former Frostburg State minority affairs administrator, about the name of a ridge that extends 30 miles from Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County to the Casselman River in Pennsylvania. The Garrett County portion of the ridge is the highest along U.S. Alternate Route 40, (3,075 feet at its peak). In Somerset County, Pennsylvania, it is the highest point in the state.
The U.S. Alternate 40 portion of Negro Mountain, with its roadside park and two brick grills, is popular among travelers heading west to Morgantown, W.Va., or south to Deep Creek Lake. There is also the Negro Mountain Trail System: eight miles of challenging stream and terrain crossings that is part of the Savage River State Forest.
The mountain is set along a route that's part of the National Historic Road, which covers six states (824 miles) from Maryland to Illinois. Three years ago, Maryland's National Historic Road officials upgraded the Negro Mountain site by installing a marker detailing the origins of its name.
"Nemesis, a black frontiersman," the marker says, "was killed here while fighting Indians with Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap in the 1750s. Legend tells us that he had a premonition of his death. In his honor, they named this mountain after him."
Atkinson, who visited the site before the marker was installed, said stories abound that the mountain might have been named for an African-American who was lynched there. The name itself doesn't show up on many road maps, and unless you're driving through Garrett County, you might have never heard of it.
But that could change. Al Feldstein, an amateur historian from Cumberland, displays the mountain and its history on a Web site he created in conjunction with the Western Maryland Historical Library. The Allegany County African American History collection consists mostly of Allegany County history but also features sites in Washington and Garrett counties.
"I have always known of the mountain since I was a kid and of the various stories as to how it got its name," said Feldstein. "The man, the historic and courageous African-American frontiersman it was named [after] 250 years ago and honors, needs to be remembered."
Cindi Ptak, former program manager for Maryland's Historic National Road, says that because only scant information is available, accounts of the mountain's naming cannot be confirmed.
Some accounts, for example, suggest that Nemesis might have been a slave.
"As the primary researcher for this project," Ptak said, "I can tell you that I was never able to find any evidence of how this mountain was named, so you'll see that I could only assert this story as legend."
In Pennsylvania, where there is also a Negro Mountain Tunnel in Somerset County, state representatives drafted a resolution two years ago urging the governor to form a commission to study the name. Two weeks ago, the resolution was referred to a state government committee.
In Garrett County, Chamber of Commerce President Charlie Ross said that he has occasionally heard talk of renaming the mountain.
"It never caught on as a campaign," said Ross. "I think it would be a wonderful thing to give it a much grander description than the generic Negro Mountain."