Cumberland Times-News

May 15, 2008

Uhl Street intriguing mystery in Frostburg

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Uhl Street, here in Frostburg, is one of the town's intriguing mysteries, beginning with the question of the pronunciation of the name. Should it be Coool, or Yule? I prefer the former, but I have no valid reason for objecting to anyone's associating it with Christmas.

I was told, years ago, that the street was nicknamed Devil's Alley, but so far no one has explained how it got that name. One conjecture was that the Maier family, who owned the ice plant across the street, had a speakeasy in their cellar during the 1920s. This I doubt, having known several ladies in the family, college-educated, Sunday school teaching, musically talented and definitely strait-laced.

A somewhat more probable explanation came from a granddaughter of Judge Chambers, who also had a house on Uhl Street. She suggested that her six or seven uncles, the judge's sons, were little imps whose reputation spilled over the neighborhood.

Or perhaps the sharp drop-off at the end of the street reminded someone of the easy access to the netherworld - or some early motorist trying to drive a car up the hill to Main Street pronounced it a devilish undertaking. Your guess about the origin of the name is every bit as valid as mine.

The name Uhl, however, is a respected one in Allegany County. Early in the 19th century the family had settled on a military lot just south of the Pennsylvania state line. They were well-established farmers when Clinton Uhl was born at Wellersburg in 1871. There is no record of his schooling, but he was obviously intelligent, working his way up from delivery boy for the McMullen store in Mount Savage and to becoming a store owner himself and a partner in a variety of enterprises, including quarry and a shoe business.

In 1905, he was named to the State Roads Commission, where he continued to serve for many years. The Uhl Highway - now known as Route 51 - was named in his honor.

But was Uhl Street named for him? He did not live there, or at any other Frostburg address. I wonder whether naming the street was a bit of political strategy like the naming of Pinchot Trail in Pennsylvania.

That road was a nameless nine-mile stretch when our family first traveled across it in a Model T Ford. We had to plough through slippery mud; we climbed over bare rock ridges; we forded streams and stirred up dust.

But two years later we found the roadway smoothed and straightened and paved. Local people got the bright idea of renaming the road in honor of Governor Pinchot, who was taken on a ceremonial ride from one end of it to the other, including every bump and slough. The bulldozers and scrapers and tar trucks were on the scene almost before the governor got back to Harrisburg!

Was there a similar strategy here in Frostburg, naming the street for the man in charge, and laying small bets on the time it would take for the roadbuilding equipment to arrive?

Another possibility is that Uhl Street was named for an entirely different member of the Uhl family, perhaps only distantly related.

Quite by accident I stumbled across a small item in the Cumberland Times of 1913, mentioning that a man from Texas was visiting his uncle, Peter Uhl, in Frostburg.

Peter was identified as a hatter, with a small shop on Main Street, where the marble yard was established in the late 1800s, to be replaced by a series of coffee shops more recently.

Presumably Peter made men's hats, turning fur-clippings into felt and shaping the felt into fedoras and derbys. Unfortunately, there is no information about when, or for how long, Peter Uhl continued his business, or whether the street carries his name.

There are still Uhls living in Allegany County, though they have little information about their great-, or great-great-grandfather. Sarah Uhl, Clinton's sister? married Richard Beall of Frostburg, and became the proprietress of Mrs. Beall's Cottages, the up-scale summer resort on Beall's Lane. In one way or another, Frostburg's history and that of the Uhl family are linked.

Clinton Uhl, the state roads commissioner, seems to have been appointed for political reasons, not for his road-building expertise. But he was a respected citizen, described as a self-made man, who worked his way from farm-hand to delivery boy, from small shopkeeper to company director, and then to a long career as a Maryland State Roads commissioner.

We have a street that carries his name. But was it really named for him? When, and why, did local people call it Devil's Alley? - and isn't it fun when one question leads to another and there's no end to the interesting information we discover.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.