1st RUNNER UP
Bill Atkinson still remembers where and when he saw the light about the potential of outdoor tourism: Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park, 1989.
Atkinson had traveled there to attend a conference exploring the feasibility of what then seemed a long-shot project, building a multi-use trail between his hometown, Cumberland, Md., and Pittsburgh, Pa. His inspiration came not in meeting rooms, but in the tiny, vibrant town of Ohiopyle, just outside the park entrance.
“It was packed with people biking and walking,” said Atkinson, a regional planner with the state of Maryland. “I thought, ‘Holy Cow! If they can draw this many people to a town of 67, just think what we could do in Cumberland.’ ”
The Cumberland-to-Pittsburgh trail, called the Great Allegheny Passage, did, in fact, prove to be feasible. And its completion in 2013 did, ultimately, inspire Cumberland and surrounding Allegany County to pursue the economic future Atkinson long envisioned. The city is emerging as a prime destination for specific types of outdoor enthusiasts, ones who like to mix fresh air with culture, history and access to major metropolitan areas.
“I think we’re going through a brand renaissance,” said Ashli Workman, Allegany County’s tourism director.
“We’re a declining industrial town in a lot of ways, but we’re fighting that,” says Doug “Hutch” Hutchins, owner of the Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop and head brewer of the newly formed 1812 Farm Brewery. “We’re trying to educate people about what tourism can do for this city.”
Like another Top Town, Norton Va., Cumberland probably could have taken this approach much earlier if it hadn’t been bound to traditional industry. For a town of 20,000, it’s loaded with natural and manmade attractions.
Cumberland has long been known as the northern terminus of the 185-mile towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which is to bike trails what Fenway Park is to baseball stadiums. Thanks partly to the lobbying of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the canal was designated as a national historic park in 1971. The completion of the Allegheny Passage placed Cumberland near the midpoint of the combined trails—a smooth path, free of car traffic, stretching from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh.
This may be one of the area’s most famous attractions, but it’s far from the only one, Workman says.
Cumberland serves as the gateway to the Allegheny Mountains and 25 percent of its land is publicly owned. Visitors can fly fish on the Potomac River, paddle in 243-acre Lake Habeeb in Rocky Gap State Park, or ride mountain bikes in the 46,000-acre Green Ridge State Forest. The city is so tightly tucked into a corner with West Virginia and Pennsylvania—and all the recreation opportunities they offer—that a well-known road bike ride manages to include three states in a loop covering just 24 miles.
“If you’re into outdoor adventure, this is a mecca,” Workman said.
But Cumberland is also packed with culture—so packed that even disinterested cyclists or paddlers may accidentally bump into a musical performance, art gallery, or historical site.
The annual DelFest, one of the nation’s largest bluegrass events, is held on a cliff high above the Potomac and offers put-in and take-out spots for fans who want to squeeze a river trip in between shows. The towpath trail passes neighborhoods famous for galleries, bars that feature musical acts vying for a DelFest booking, and numerous historical sites, several of which testify to George Washington’s deep and lasting imprint on the Potomac valley.
The trail skirts both a historic district of 19th-century homes on a road named, of course, Washington Street, and a cabin that served as Washington’s headquarters when he was a young colonel fighting in the French and Indian War.
His commander at the time, Gen. Edward Braddock, built a road that was the precursor to America’s first federally funded highway, the National Road. It once stretched from Cumberland west, across the Allegheny Mountains; the towpath takes cyclists directly past mile zero.
Washington was also the biggest backer of the canal that the towpath follows, though he imagined it continuing west, over the mountains, to the headwaters of the Ohio River—the current site of Pittsburgh. That means the planners who worked so long on the Allegheny Passage and the Cumberland residents starting to benefit from this work are, like Washington, focused on the economic potential of westward expansion.
“We like to think we completed Washington’s vision,” Atkinson said. “We just did it in a different transportation mode.”
COZY + VERY OLD
Cumberland is home to several independently owned boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts. One of the most opulent and historic is the Bruce House Inn, formerly a private residence built in 1840.
201 Fayette t.
EAT WITH GINO
Cumberland is home to two landmark restaurants specializing in fare justified only by the most grueling ride or hike: the Queen City Creamery (108 W. Harrison St.) and Curtis’ Coney Island Famous Weiners (35 N. Liberty St.) The aptly named creamery specializes in frozen custard—the richest imaginable ice cream further enriched with egg yolks. At the 99-year-old Curtis’, customers can watch owner Gino Giatis stack his tattooed arms with dogs “and just load them down with Coney sauce and onions,” Workman said.
DelFest, which honors the legacy of bluegrass legend Del McCoury and is held annually over Memorial Day weekend. It attracts the best acts in bluegrass and as many as 40,000 fans to a spectacular riverside venue.