- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

The first deep breath comes somewhere west of Frederick, Md. That's when the pace slows, the shopping malls and fast food places fall away, and the road rises to meet you.

We're on U.S. Route 40, a road that has been eclipsed by Interstate 70, where the drive is faster but far less interesting. Already, the pace of life is slower here. You can see it in the way that folks porch sit, with nary a quarterly report in sight. You can feel it in the way the people in the car behind you don't seem to care that you're not doing the speed limit.

Just a stone's throw from the interstate at times, U.S. 40 is always a world away. Hints of its former lives lurk beyond every curve. Before you know it, you are climbing the hills, feeling your car level off long before the mountain does. This weekend, travel the path our forefathers took. Make your way westward along U.S. 40 and the National Road.

It began in 1811, in response to the need for a way to the western settlements. Its heyday, however, was in the 1840s, when travelers and drovers crowded the many wagon stops, inns and taverns along the route. Thanks to the railroad, its luster faded in the 1870s but was renewed by the automobile in the 1920s. Today, U.S. 40 stretches from the boardwalk at Atlantic City, N.J., to San Francisco.

Frederick, with districts devoted to historic houses and fast food, is a good starting point for the intersection of the parallel worlds of the old road and the people whizzing by on the new. But the decision to take the road less traveled is not as simple as it seems.

Route 40 can have as many as three personalities at once. Today, U.S. 40 often runs along the same route as I-70 or I-68. Alternate U.S. 40 and Scenic U.S. 40 (an off-and-on designation sometimes pinned to Alternate 40) offer routes that tend to wind through towns and over mountains, and are more interesting. But which one is the National Road?

All of them and none of them, it seems. The actual National Road encompassed parts of Scenic and Alternate 40 along with Maryland Route 144 and various country roads stretching from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill. The length from Baltimore to Cumberland is often called the National Pike. Your best bet is probably just to slow down, watch for National Road or National Pike markers, and let the road take you where it will.

Just outside Frederick on U.S. 40 is the Barbara Fritchie Candy Stick Restaurant, a fixture on the route since 1960. Back then, U.S. 40 was the only way west.

"People came here from all over," remembers Helen Crouse, who has been working at the restaurant since 1962. "We'd get people from just about every state."

The food makes them come back.

"It's home cooked and it's still the best," says Mrs. Crouse, who at 80, comes in "for the company" even on days she's not working. Many of the other "girls" have been working there nearly as long, one for more than 30 years and another for nearly 20.

Today, most of the diners are local people, especially on Sunday, when a stop at the restaurant is part of the go-to-meeting routine. Even folks who have moved away return, such as the extended family that came from three different states to celebrate three generations of birthdays.

There are new owners now, Cecil Umbel and his wife, Gaye. They are retooling the place, pointing up the woodwork, adding new curtains, restoring old counter stools. But the regulars ask them not to stray too far from the original.

"You can't beat it," says Dick Hoffman, whose been coming to the place since it opened. "It's got the same things now as it did then."

Between Braddock and Hagerstown "Route 40" becomes two very distinct roads, U.S. 40 and, south of it, Alternate 40. Toward historic Hagerstown on Route 40 proper is the Mason Dixon Dragway, a world away from Washington. You're likely to hear it before you see it the distinctive drone of straining engines is a dead giveaway but seeing it is an experience in itself. In the District, most folks tend to shy away from smoke. Here, people lean in.

"I love the smell of burning oil," confesses Mary Johnson of Clear Spring, who brought along her daughter and two granddaughters for a recent event. "I don't waste my time sitting in the seats. I want to be right in the action."

Hagerstown offers a number of historic sites, including a classic post office with 1930s murals. If you are lucky, you might be able to catch the Hagerstown Suns take on another Class-A baseball team in a game played at Municipal Stadium, built in 1931.

"I don't like baseball much, but I sure do love everything else," says Jackie Jessup, 10, who seems delighted by between-innings entertainment that includes dancing contests, prize drawings and T-shirt tosses. Jackie, from Hagerstown, comes to games "all the time," with her father Robert and brother Tim, 7.

"I don't even miss TV," she declares. "Except when it's raining really hard."

West of Hagerstown on Route 40 you'll come to Clear Spring, a picturesque village dotted with early Federal houses not far from the Potomac River. It is in Clear Spring that you'll encounter one of the main reasons you'll probably never make a trip down Route 40 the same way twice. It's so easy to get sidetracked.

More than anything else, the historical markers will do you in. One in Clear Spring takes you to Fort Frederick, the only extant fort from the French and Indian War, restored during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. On weekends, interpreters offer living-history re-enactments of 18th-century life.

Before you reach the fort, there's another lure. Four Locks Road offers a detour through a winding bit of country down to the C&O canal.

Four Locks was once a bustling hamlet in its own right, with homes, a store and a school. They all clustered around the four locks spaced closely together to provide for the region's 32-foot change in elevation. Today, all that remains are the locks, the old canal bed, a few outbuildings and a spectacular view of the Potomac River.

West of Clear Spring, Route 144 follows the route of the National Road, while Scenic U.S. 40 follows the original U.S. 40, constructed in the 1930s. The present U.S. 40 joins I-70 and, farther west, I-68, emerging from I-68 at the interstate's exit 72. Ten miles on, it loses itself again in I-68 and stays hidden all the way to Cumberland.

The influence of the railroad can best be seen in Cumberland, about 40 miles to the west. The B&O tracks arrived here in 1842 and the Western Maryland Railroad in 1906. Amtrak's Capital Limited stops here on its way to Pittsburgh and beyond. The Western Maryland Scenic railroad offers weekend trips to Frostburg.

It's easy to spend the day in Cumberland, with its museums and partially restored downtown. On Washington Street, a row of elaborate Victorian homes provides evidence of the glory days of Cumberland, the western terminus of the C&O Canal since 1850.

"You'll see every type of Victorian house ever made on Washington Street," says Patty Kelley, development director for the Allegany County Historical Society.

The Historical Society operates the Gordon-Roberts House on Washington Street, a restored Victorian home once owned by Josiah Gordon, president of the C&O Canal. Inside, life seems much as it was in the late 19th century. Tea is served in the front parlor. Upstairs are period bedrooms and sitting rooms. Downstairs are servants' quarters, complete with early washing machines, irons and vacuums.

West of Cumberland Route 40 emerges as Alternate 40, which runs all the way to Keyser's Ridge. Outside Cumberland you'll pass through the Narrows, the tiny gap between Haystack and Wills Mountains. Beyond the Narrows is LaVale, a streetcar suburb that hosts an 1833 tollhouse, one of the last remaining structures from National Road days.

Frostburg, a quaint college town on Alternate 40 perched on the edge of coal country, easily demands a stop. For one thing, there's the restored 1891 depot. Even if you are not taking the excursion train, a stop here is instructive. On weekends, there always seems to be at least a couple of rail fans here to photograph the engine being turned on the turntable for the trip to Cumberland.

The depot is surrounded by a complex of buildings that includes an old hotel, a snack bar and several shops that cater to the railroad trade.

Alongside the depot is the Thrasher Carriage Museum, featuring a unique assortment of early carriages from the collection of local resident John Thrasher. Vehicles here include surreys and sleighs, buckboards and broughams. There's even a milk truck from when milk was delivered.

Of course, the carriage trade would never have dreamed of staying at the old hotel beside the tracks. It made its way up to Frostburg proper, to stay at the Hotel Gladstone, now called Failinger's Hotel Gunter. Like most hotels, inns and taverns along the National Road, the 1896 building is located on the north side of the street, the better to cater to west-bound travelers.

During the early 1900s, many police officers and their prisoners stopped at the hotel to spend the night. The police officers stayed upstairs, ascending a massive oak staircase to rooms with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Their prisoners were not so lucky. They were taken downstairs to a makeshift jail alongside the town's cockfighting pit.

The jail and the pit remain for the curious, along with interpretive descriptions, relics and photographs from Frostburg's past.

Grantsville, on Alternate 40, is at the beginning of the Appalachians in Garrett County and combines a sense of history with a sense of purpose. Originally the town was a few miles away. But when the National Road came through, 10 residents simply moved the town. Over the years, it had a thriving collection of wagon stops, taverns and hostelries.

On the outskirts of Grantsville is Penn Alps, a combination restaurant and craft shop that was founded in 1958 by Alta Schrock to provide an outlet for craftspeople in the surrounding mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.

This is Amish-Mennonite country, as you might guess from the proximity of New Germany State Park, the profusion of German dishes on the menu and the prim white caps on many of the women. Housed in part in an 1818 tavern, Penn Alps has expanded to include a concert hall that features a summer series of classical musicians. The Spruce Forest Artisan village, a collection of log structures that house local craftsmen, is here as well.

Just a short walk down the road is the old Casselman Bridge. The bridge was completed in 1813 and used until 1933, when Route 40 was rerouted, and was once the largest single-span stone bridge in the country. Slated for demolition, it was saved by a coalition of neighborhood residents and historians, and survives as one of the last pieces of the old road.

Grantsville is just about as far as you can go on a single day traveling on Route 40. You can stay overnight in town at a bed and breakfast or the 1924 Casselman Motor Lodge before making your way back.

The return trip is easy, of course: You're only three hours from home by interstate.

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