News & Politics

Turnaround Town

An old railroad hub finds new life in the arts and the mountains.

To celebrate her birthday, Jerri Dell and her husband, Terry Bachman, spent a weekend in the mountains.

“We drove down I-68 into Cumberland and saw all of the beautiful church steeples with the mountains as a backdrop,” says Dell. “We absolutely fell in love.”

Within weeks, they bought a second home on the outskirts of Cumberland. After a year of spending weekends there, Dell retired from the World Bank and they sold their home in Silver Spring. Now she and Bachman, a furniture maker and wood sculptor, own and live above an art gallery in a 1918 Federal-style red-brick building in downtown Cumberland.

“I find that Washington is a wonderful place to visit,” Dell says, “but living here is infinitely easier.”

Urbanites have been heading for historic Cumberland over the past ten years, lured by low real-estate prices, scenery, and a slower pace of life.

The town of 21,000 is nestled among the mountains of Western Maryland on the Potomac River, about 140 miles from DC. As the western terminus of the C&O Canal, it was a railroad hub in the 19th century. But Cumberland fell on hard times in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Construction of I-70 diverted much of its traffic, and the town’s tire, textile, and glass factories closed.

Cumberland’s turnaround began in the late 1990s. Ed Mullaney, who grew up in Cumberland and retired there after teaching for 30 years in Montgomery County, spearheaded a project to illuminate 14 church steeples downtown.

“There used to be a saying,” says Mullaney. “ ‘Will the last one out of Cumberland please turn out the lights?’ ” Now, says Mullaney, the motto is “We are turning the lights back on in Cumberland.”

The town’s renaissance is rooted in making it a center for the arts. The Allegany Arts Council uses tax credits to attract art galleries and stores. The town converted its main drag, Baltimore Street, into a three-block pedestrian mall that hosts arts walks, flower marts, and concerts.

Proximity to three big cities—Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh—has made Cumberland a desirable second-home and retirement destination. It also has helped create an urban feel in a small-town setting.

Pam Reynolds moved to Cumberland a year ago from Los Angeles, where she was an advertising executive, to launch a second career as a bed-and-breakfast owner at the Bruce House Inn. She found residents open-minded—nothing like the stereotype of small-town provincialism. Says Reynolds: “There’s a nice mix of people who come here from large cities like DC and Philadelphia.”

Most of the Victorians, Colonials, and Federal-style homes in downtown were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “My husband is British,” says Reynolds, “and Cumberland reminded me of a little European village.”

Liz Skidmore, a broker with Coldwell Banker, says you can buy a historic fixer-upper for $75,000. For one that’s restored, the price reaches $200,000.

Outside Cumberland are lots of opportunities for outdoor sports and fun. Nearby Rocky Gap State Park has more than 3,000 acres of trails and campsites surrounding Lake Habeeb. About 40 miles west, Deep Creek Lake has fishing, golf, camping, and watersports. Cumberland is also within 100 miles of nine ski resorts.

Kelly Moran and husband Steve Wade built a cottage on the Fore Sisters Golf Course, about ten miles from downtown, in 2006. They live year-round in Gaithersburg but plan to move to Cumberland.

Moran loves wandering into the independent stores, boutiques, and galleries. “Downtown Cumberland still has a uniqueness that a lot of other places lack,” she says. She and Wade go out to eat in town, see concerts at performing-arts venue Windsor Hall, and are regulars at Friday After Five, a weekly summer music event that draws thousands. Moran bought a bike and does a lot of cycling on the C&O Canal towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage, which stretches to Pittsburgh.

Despite its growth, Cumberland retains its small-town feel. Since 1936, the town’s two public high schools have squared off in football. Emotions run high; the game usually draws more than 10,000 fans.

“It’s the biggest news for weeks,” says Jerri Dell. “It feels like you could be in the 1950s.” 

More Outdoors Towns

In the mountains of West Virginia’s panhandle, Berkeley Springs is known for its mineral-spring baths and spas. Nearby Cacapon State Park offers golf, cross-country skiing, watersports, horseback riding, hiking, and fishing. The downtown, with many shops and restaurants, hosts a busy roster of festivals and cultural events.

Famous for its caverns, Luray is near Shenandoah National Park’s camping and miles of trails as well as Lake Arrowhead boating, swimming, fishing, and tubing.

Thurmont, with 6,000 residents in northern Frederick County, gets its name from the German and French words for “gateway to the mountains.” Bordering Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, it offers good fishing, hunting, camping, swimming, and hiking.

Surrounded by forests, mountains, and parks and near Swallow Falls, the largest waterfall in Maryland, Oakland is less than ten miles from Deep Creek Lake and has a walkable downtown with shops and restaurants.


This article is part of Washingtonian's Great Small Towns package. Click here to read about more great small towns.