- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

LONACONING, Md. — Like Georges Creek, the tainted stream rushing through Western Maryland’s historic coal region, Lonaconing has been going downhill a long time.

So when the State Highway Administration told residents that the newly designated Coal Heritage Route could flood their town with tourist dollars, some residents were skeptical.

And when the agency forced several businesses in June to remove roadside advertisements that didn’t conform with heritage-route rules, it was too much for Sue Broadwater.

“I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” said Miss Broadwater, a 62-year-old coal miner’s daughter. “I love the history but we can’t live in the past, either. I don’t want to see what we have now get hurt for something that might not come for ages.”

Jobs are scarce in the Allegany County town of 1,164, established in 1835 by the Georges Creek Coal and Iron Co.

Drivers passing through on Maryland 36 to work at the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Luke or catch trout in the Savage River or the Potomac’s North Branch, rarely stop in Lonaconing (pronounced LOH-nah-koh-ning.)

The town’s old iron furnace, its museum dedicated to native baseball great Lefty Grove, and the decaying silk mill and glass factory, a block or two off the highway, are mainly local curiosities.

But those structures could become attractions along the 54-mile heritage route, said Charles B. Adams, the highway administration’s director of environmental design.

“Let’s say that the silk mill gets restored,” he told about 15 residents at an Aug. 21 meeting. “It’s unbelievable the number of people who will want to come to the silk mill and see how that business operated. You cannot imagine it.”

Yet Mr. Adams acknowledged it will be at least two years before federal funds from the National Scenic Byways program reach Lonaconing. And that’s assuming the yet-to-be written Coal Heritage Route Corridor Management Plan, which the state considers a high priority, survives the competition with similar projects in 49 other states for a share of the federal money — $25 million this year.

The Coal Heritage Route is among 31 scenic byways Maryland transportation officials designated in the late 1990s to promote tourism in remote corners. The state has published a scenic byways map and guidebook, and is erecting road signs along the routes. The Coal Heritage Route signs went up earlier this year.

And certain private signs, advertising businesses along the route, were ordered taken down. The federal regulations for scenic byways prohibit off-premises advertising — signs that are not on the property of the business they promote.

The order affected several Lonaconing businesses, including Mayor Jack Coburn’s Main Course Restaurant, which is now closed for renovations.

Mr. Coburn complained bitterly that Lonaconing, plagued by poverty and prone to flooding from streams polluted by acid from abandoned coal mines, was again being offered the short end of the stick.

“A lot of times it seems like we don’t get that chunk of the pie,” he said. “We are not a priority list in the state of Maryland by any means, and that’s what’s going to happen with the corridor, I guarantee,” he said.

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