Going Places from Cumberland

This relatively inconspicuous and little known city in the thin sliver of Maryland near the Pennsylvania border is one of the most historic spots in the history of transportation in North America. Located on the Potomac River, this site was part of the simple trail system by which Native Americans and early Euro-American explorers traveled across the Allegheny Mountains. The first Anglo settlement here was a fort used by Generals Edward Braddock and George Washington during the French and Indian War, named after the son of King George II, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland.

Three modes of transportation have used Cumberland as anchor: water transportation–the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the C & O); highway transportation–the Great National Road; and railroad transportation–the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road (B & O). It once was forecast to be an industrial center of the United States, a destiny never realized. From a high population of some 39,000 after World War II, Cumberland has gradually diminished to about 22,000 at this time. As the place where the C & O trail and Great Allegheny Passage flow into one another, Cumberland is now developing a new chapter in its history–as the most important location on this entire route from D. C. to Pittsburgh.

I’m posting this column about Cumberland near the Fourth of July because on that day in 1828 two ceremonies transpired that portended much of the future of America’s transportation system. The event with political cachet began early in the morning when President John Adams led an entourage of prominent people on a steamship ride up the Potomac from the capital to Little Falls to launch the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was to be the culmination of George Washington’s dream of creating a water transportation route from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio valley.

The mood can be seen in the overblown rhetoric at the Falls, which historian Joel Achenbach has excerpted in his book The Grand Idea. Charles Fenton Mercer described what they were doing as one of the “events, the monuments of which, surviving every other memorial of human existence, eternise the nation to whose history they belong, after all the other vestiges of its glory have disappeared from the globe.”

President Adams used similarly exaggerated speech to describe the anticipated canal as “a conquest over physical nature, such as has never yet been achieved by man,” greater even that the pyramids and Great Wall of China. He justified their action by appealing to “the Holy Oracles of Truth” in which “the Lord of the Universe” blessed the first human being with the command that they “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it.”

On that same day in Baltimore, scarcely forty miles distant, a vast crowd estimated by some to be as high as 70,000 people, came together for a ceremony that would launch the construction of tracks for a new creation, the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road. A important part of the ceremony was the dedication of a symbolic stone by Charles Carroll, ninety-one years old and only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

This was a visionary act for, as Achenbach reports, the longest railroad then in existence was in England, and it was only twenty-five miles. The potential for this new mode of transportation was not yet understood, since most people thought of railroads as routes for horse-drawn wagons using iron rails instead of muddy ruts. Some people thought that canals could be used to transport freight and railroads to carry people. Both projects presented engineering challenges that no one had anticipated and canal and railroad alike led to remarkable engineering advances and achievements.

Steam power quickly came to the fore and the first train arrived in Cumberland in 1842—powered by steam not horses—and the tracks continued to be laid on to the Ohio. Eight years after the rails had reached Cumberland, the canal was finally completed to that place, but it was to go no further. What men like Washington and Jefferson had not been able to realize had now become evident: water was not the way that inland transportation would occur.

Washington, Achenbach points out, “lived his life in the age of wind, water, and muscle power, when mountains and rivers seemed certain to shape the destiny of society. He could not have imagined a world in which technology was more important than geography” (265). The culmination of this part of the struggle took place in mid-century when the B & O obtained financial control over the C & O, primarily to keep rival railroads from using the right of way.

What about the third mode of transportation, the one of greatest interest to bicyclists and motorists? Here, too, Cumberland was a central point. Here the “Great National Road” began, with construction to go in both directions—eastward to Baltimore and westward to the Ohio valley, with its terminus in Vandalia, Illinois. But my story of bicycling the Cumberland Road will have to wait until another time.

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