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Western Mountains

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Encompassing Frederick, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties, western Maryland is distinguished by the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Plateau, Blue Ridge Mountains, and Piedmont foothills. Nearly a century passed from the time of Maryland’s first European settlement in the Chesapeake before Charles Calvert opened this mountainous “backcountry” in 1729. Lacking serviceable roads and sufficient population, the inland areas remained largely unsettled by Europeans. Moreover, with its rocky outcroppings and open fields devoid of timber, the region was mistakenly thought unfarmable, referred to as “the barrens.” Making his own foray in 1744, however, Receiver General Daniel Dulany proclaimed that it “equals, if does not exceed any in America for natural advantages” including “rich soil for planting.” He quickly acquired tracts along the Monocacy River and Antietam Creek valleys and on behalf of Calvert offered farms of 100 to 300 acres to Scots-Irish and German settlers from Pennsylvania. As further enticement, in 1745 Dulany laid out “Frederick Town” as a market center. By 1748, it was the largest city in the state and the seat of newly formed Frederick County.

Unlike Chesapeake tobacco planters, the German settlers were grain farmers, praised for their sober industry and orderly farmsteads, recognizable by their central-chimney stone and log houses and bank barns. Merchant gristmills processing grain for export were built, numbering eighty by 1798. Wagon roads connected Frederick to Baltimore via the Baltimore Turnpike that became part of the National Road, pushing settlement westward while providing a corridor for the development of market towns and stage stops catering to travelers and drovers hauling goods.

Boundary disputes motivated Calvert to lay claim to lands even farther west. In 1741, Dulany sent agents into the mountains to facilitate settlement west of the Potomac. In 1754, Fort Cumberland offered a frontier outpost and staging point for military maneuvers during the French and Indian War. The area west of Fort Cumberland was opened in 1774, offering land as enticement for military service. When Allegany County was set off from Washington in 1789, Cumberland became the county seat. German, Scots-Irish, and French began migrating from Frederick County. Development was bolstered by arrival of the National Road in 1811, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1842, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1850. These transportation networks further opened the region to settlement and to the extraction of iron and its greatest commodity, coal.

Coal deposits were identified in the Georges Creek region as early as 1810, and by the 1840s mining gained momentum. As part of the Great Appalachian coal fields extending from northern Pennsylvania to central Alabama, western Maryland was fast becoming one of the nation’s principal coal producers. Paternalistic company towns were created, populated largely by Irish immigrants. Iron manufacture and brickmaking contributed to economic development. Coal production peaked in 1907, declining into the 1930s, when most of the deep mines closed.

In contrast, the area farther west that became Garrett County in 1872 was agricultural, with grain as its greatest commodity. Settlements sprang up along the National Road, offering inns and hotels, and around the gristmills at the heart of farming communities. Sawmills were likewise established, facilitating the transformation from log settler cabins to plank and balloon-frame houses. The B&O gave impetus for Garrett County’s formation. Oakland was laid out as its future county seat in 1849 in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival in 1851, naming the county for its president, John W. Garrett. Garrett encouraged resort development in the new county to promote use of his railroad, touting the fresh mountain air and scenic beauty. Garrett County continued the tradition of outdoor recreation in the twentieth century. Deep Creek Lake, created from a hydroelectric dam project in 1925, became a major boating destination, while state parks and resorts provide year-round recreational opportunities, including hiking and skiing in the “Maryland Alps.”

Meanwhile, by 1850 Frederick was second only to Baltimore in wealth, with light industries such as tanning, glassmaking, brickmaking, distilling, and brewing now thriving along with milling. But western Maryland’s industrial focus soon shifted to Hagerstown, a railroad hub and manufacturing center known for products such as furniture and organs. The Civil War greatly impacted the region, with Confederate incursions and major battles fought in such places as Antietam/Sharpsburg and Monocacy. Struggling to recover in the aftermath, farmers diversified in order to compete with grain-producing regions in the Midwest, while industry and emancipation drew laborers away. Agricultural lime production helped increase yields, but by c. 1900 dairy farming had taken hold, spurred by innovations in milk processing.

Post-World War II construction of the Eisenhower Defense Highway (I-70 and I-270) begun in 1956 facilitated suburban development while making the area more commutable to jobs in Baltimore and Washington. Since then, farms have increasingly given way to suburban sprawl. Frederick is currently the second largest city in Maryland and witnessing the revitalization of its historic downtown. Farther west, cities such as Hagerstown and Cumberland still suffer from de-industrialization, seeking to reinvigorate their once powerful economies. Outdoor recreation and tourism related to the region’s Civil War history are now the major economic drivers in the mountain counties of western Maryland.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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