Canal Place

A boy and his mule (and his water fountain)

A boy and his mule (and his water fountain)

I admit that I’m a big fan of nature and getting away from it all, but there’s something about Cumberland that I really like.  On three different occasions I hopped on my bike at 7am in front of this statue and headed out under the arch, thinking only of Georgetown three days down the road.  Every year, a growing number of people begin their journey down the C&O Canal from this spot, and still more who have headed down the GAP Trail from Pittsburgh call Cumberland the (almost) halfway point.  This is the place where two old enemies–the canal and the railroad–seem to have shaken hands and made up  Indeed, the two share the brick building in the background, and both are friends to anybody who wants to step back in time.

Cumberland C&O Canal Visitor center sign

Cumberland C&O Canal Visitor center sign

On the lower level of the building, the Cumberland Visitor Center is the first of many along the canal, and it may be the most interesting of the bunch.  It has the usual books and souvenirs, and the back room contains a simulated display of the inner workings of a canal boat.  While we were there, a group of kids was playing inside of the “boat”, but more importantly, they were interacting with history.  I think that’s probably the most desired effect: keep young people interested in our past–the C&O in particular–and the park will continue to live and thrive well into the future.

Canal lock display

Canal lock display

There is a lot to like about the visitor center, and the display above was one of my favorites.  The boat is in the process of “locking through,” and the scene even contains the lock master’s farm animals and garden plot.  As I wandered from one display to another, I learned some interesting facts: the last mule to pull a boat on the canal was named Mutt, and, when in operation, the canal contained enough water to fill 350 million bathtubs.  Okay, I’m ready to play C&O Canal Jeopardy!

Old picture of canal boats in Cumberland

Old picture of canal boats in Cumberland

A picture of a picture really doesn’t do justice to the Cumberland wharf scene, but this image is amazing firsthand.  Also, as one leaves the visitor center and heads uptown, artist John Alderton captured the past and present in his murals known as the “five postcards.”  The murals depict the many forms of transportation that have been and are important parts of Cumberland’s past, present, and future.

John Alderton's Five Postcards (2005)

John Alderton’s Five Postcards (2005)

From left to right, the “Five Postcards” consist of a steam engine, a biker, an automobile (circa 1950s), the C&O Canal, and a hiker.  While the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is doing well, it’s right-of-way shares territory with the GAP Trail (hikers and bikers).  Likewise, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is popular with hikers, bikers, and history buffs, and one could argue that the canal has been more successful as a park than as a means of transporting goods.  Either way, transportation remains a driving force in Cumberland, whether it be pedestrian, pedal-powered, or operated by steam or diesel.

John Alderton's C&O Canal Postcard

John Alderton’s C&O Canal Postcard

Below the rails of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, there is an interesting “brick relief” of the 734 steam engine that does the majority of the trips on the WMSR.  In fact, it’s just past the entrance into the C&O Canal Visitor Center, and it seems to beckon visitors up the stairs toward the train related section of the building.  Topside, passengers hop aboard the train for a 32 mile round-trip to Frostburg that lasts approximately three hours, and inside of the doors, there are two gift shops selling both C&O Canal and WMSR related gear.

A brick version of the 734!

A brick version of the 734!

From Canal Place, there are four choices to make: take a trip on the C&O, head up the GAP, hop aboard the scenic railroad, or check out the variety of art and displays in or near the building.  To say the least, Cumberland is an interesting place that was and is touched by the results of the industrial revolution.  The trains remain, old and new, and once deserted pathways have been converted into recreational trails enjoyed by thousands of people every year.  I would highly recommend getting off of the elevated interstate and seeing the great things that lie below.

The 734!

The 734!

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