Cumberland is a sleepy, pleasant place, steeped in railroad history. This has always been a railroad town for as long as anybody can remember, and what few people didn't work for the Baltimore & Ohio, the Western Maryland, and the various smaller railroads in the area, were employed by the coal and steel industry. Such was the state of affairs until the middle of the last century.
Today, Cumberland still is a shop town and still boasts a large classification yard and engine service facility. Alas, the rolling mill, B&O station, Western Maryland and Pennsy lines, coal mines and most local industries are gone. Only one railroad, the CSX, puts on today's show, but what a show it is! In looking at a map you will see that the Queen City sits in a strategic location on the important east-west main line through the Appalachians. A few miles to the north-west, the massive grades over the mountains towards Connellsville (and ultimately Chicago) on the Keystone Subdivision over famous Sand Patch loom. Looking south-west towards Grafton, the Mountain Subdivision including Seventeenmile, Cranberry, Cheat, and Newburgh Grades stands as a sentinel to the hardships of mountain railroading. Helper service on the Chicago line is based out of Cumberland, and all engine servicing and repair for both lines is done here. Most freight trains other than coal swap blocks of cars or are reclassified in the yard, and Amtrak trains 29 and 30 stop at the small depot every day.
Cumberland proper was built along the railroad and thus stretches in an east-west fashion. Roughly speaking, the old part of the city lies west and north of Virginia Avenue, while the classification yard, shops, and hump are to the east, surrounded by an industrial area and residential neighborhoods. In the westerly part of town numerous grade crossing exist while there are none east of Virginia Ave.
Note: Besides being a railroad town, Cumberland is also a mountain town. You will find that virtually nothing is level, and there are many weird intersections and streets criss-crossing everywhere. Take your time if you're new here, and frequently look at the map to see where you are.
Looking at the map provided here, the best place to start railfanning Cumberland is the Amtrak depot east of Baltimore Street. Coming from the east on MD-51, go underneath the I-68 bridge and turn right onto East Harrison Street. You will see the semi-famous Holiday Inn to your left - we'll come back to that in a little while. Turn left at the end of the street and the next grade crossing to your right will be Baltimore Street; go across the tracks and turn right at the next possibility. After a couple hundred yards, turn right again in front of the USPS facility, following the sign to the Amtrak station. There's ample parking space here. Standing facing the tracks, to your left the yard throat and switching leads curve away from you. Westbound trains built in the Cumberland yard and ready to go are usually pulled into the departure tracks up to here by the switch engine. The road power will then couple on just clearing Baltimore Street.
Looking to the right, you will see the Baltimore Street road crossing. Beyond that, the leftmost track is the helper pocket. Usually, several SD40-2s and SD50s sit there waiting to be called to push a westbound freight up and over Sand Patch. These helpers operate under B24x symbols. Beyond the helpers out of sight to the left is Viaduct Junction, the point where the Mountain Subdivision branches off and heads towards Keyser. This is now an automatic plant which replaced ND Tower in the early 1990's.
From the depot, follow the one-way street to the right and turn left. This will bring you to a convoluted crossing - you'll have to turn half-right up the hill, then go left and left again to get back to the Baltimore Street road crossing. Turn right, go across the tracks, and immediately turn right again, parallel to the tracks, onto Queen City Drive. The road will curve slightly to the left and lead to an intersection with Centre Street. Turn right, crossing underneath the Mountain Sub viaduct. Now follows a series of roads each leading up the hill to the right and crossing over the main line. There are good photo locations at each crossing, but parking can be a problem. And of course every arriving or departing train will halt traffic in the whole western part of the city with the exception of Henderson Avenue which has a bridge over the tracks.
The first road on your right is Knox Street. A feed dealership at the grade crossing provides a place to park. From here you can see the signal boxes of Viaduct Junction, until the early 1990s the location of ND Tower. If you can't turn around here: cross the tracks, turn right onto Henderson Ave., run back to Baltimore Street, recross to the south side, and come back down on Centre Street. Otherwise, go directly go back down to Centre Street from here, then turn right.
Coming up next is Valley Street, offering much the same view as the Knox Street crossing.
The third crossing is Pear Street. Here, the north side is more interesting because you can sight along the tracks from a somewhat raised embankment and get a good view of eastbound trains slipping into the city. Being on the shadow side of things, this location is best on an overcast day. You can park in a very small gravel lot right next to the crossing, but this is only accessible coming east on Henderson Ave. and even then is a tight turn-off. Best park on Henderson Ave. and walk around, there is ample room near the tracks and this is a fairly safe place.
Fourth and final crossing is Franklin Street. You will likely hear this a lot on the scanner as the dispatcher gives east- and westbounds "permission by Franklin Street" to enter and leave the yard. The signals are located just west of the Henderson Avenue overpass which sits virtually on top of the road crossing. Ample parking space is available just to the left of the crossing under the bridge on the south side, and visibility is excellent all the way to Viaduct Junction and the signal bridge between there and Baltimore Street. Westbound freights will pull through here and stop with their rear end about one half mile to the west at Red Rock. Then, the assigned helper engine(s) will pull out of the helper pocket and go after the train to couple on. This maneuver can be observed well from here.
Continuing west on Mechanic Street (same street as Centre Street, just a different name), Henderson Ave. (Alt. US-40) will come down from the bridge on your right. You can turn right and cross over the bridge here which is the only way to cross the tracks when a long train has all the grade crossings in town tied up. Take this route if you want to go back into town and explore the eastern part, rather than head west on the Keystone Sub to Sand Patch.
Coming back on Henderson Avenue, you should turn right at Baltimore Street again, then go left and left again under the I-68 bridge, following the sign for MD-51. If, instead, you go straight across Baltimore Street and past the Amtrak depot, you will come to a large shopping mall. This used to be the site of the old B&O rolling mill which produced most of the rail used by the railroad. The whole site has been razed and sadly no trace of the mill remains.
Going east on MD-51, you will shortly arrive at the Virginia Avenue crossing (the crews call the signals here as "Virginia Lane"). Turn right at the light and go through the steep tunnel under the tracks. To your left, the sprawling shop complex is visible, usually with a number of engines parked in good view right next to the fence. Turning left will take you along the south side of the shop area parallel to the tracks. Behind the buildings lies the dead line, several tracks with a number of old engines stored awaiting their fate. There's always something to see here, and photography is easy with not even a fence blocking the view.
As always: make sure to stay off railroad property! The area is very clearly marked and there are always employees around, so if you're found nosing around on CSX property don't be surprised if you get into trouble.
The road you're on is a dead end serving the somewhat run-down residential area south of the hump. Go back through the tunnel to Industrial Blvd. and turn right onto MD-51. Paralleling the yard on the north side and slightly above track level there are some good views of the activity on the hump to be had. Parking and photography is fairly difficult here. The most convenient view can actually be had from one of the fast food restaurants; the Burger King has nice large windows. If you don't fancy eating in the car, this is probably the next best place.
Cumberland is the perfect place to stay when you're railfanning the area. Probably the number one attraction is the Holiday Inn located right next to the Baltimore Street road crossing. This is a clean, well-equipped facility with a fitness room and outdoor pool. The trackside rooms on the upper floors offer front row seats with an unusual view of the action - be prepared for being given the eye when asking for one at the front desk, though. If you're travelling with non-railfan company, be warned that it can be fairly noisy at night.
Otherwise, push the easy chair closer to the window, brew a hot cup of coffee, turn on your scanner, and let the show begin! Being directly opposite from the Amtrak depot, this is where the yard engines leave westbound trains for the road power to couple on. Weekend rates can be fairly steep in season, call for lower mid-week rates. The Inn has its own website. To give you an idea of the view from the rooms, there's a webcam mounted on the roof.
If you're looking for a more economical room, or indeed the Inn is fully booked as it often is on weekends, there are some good alternatives. Our favorites are both located in LaVale, MD, just two exits west on I-68. The Oak Tree Inn on Winchester Road is run by a railfan as evidenced by the pictures in the lobby. It offers reasonable rates and clean spacious rooms; a 50's style diner, Ponderosa, and Western Sizzlin are located within walking distance.
The Slumberland Motel is a small mom-and-pop type operation with very reasonable rates located on National Highway (Alt. US-40). A small free breakfast at Denny's is included in the room price. National Highway is more easily reached from downtown Cumberland by following Alt. US-40 (Henderson Avenue) through the Narrows all the way to LaVale.
Finally, there's also a Super 8 motel on National Highway if that's what you prefer. Again, following Alt. US-40 from Cumberland will bring you right in front of the motel. Check out the Mountain Maryland website for more tourist information.
This table gives a quick rundown of the places mentioned above; clicking onto the name will bring up a Mapquest map showing directions from the Amtrak depot, via Interstate 68:
Check out Downtown Cumberland's Website for further information about local shopping, dining, attractions, events and professional services in the downtown historic district.
You can access a number of images taken in Cumberland here. The volumes are arranged chronologically.