CUMBERLAND — Two local residents have been promoting an idea to revitalize the North Branch of the Potomac River as an attraction for tourists and other recreation seekers that could be done without removing the dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley Bridge.
Gary Clites of Carpendale, W.Va., along with Frostburg resident Bernie Miltenberger support retaining the dam and using the 3-mile stretch of deeper slack water behind it for recreation.
“I think it’s a hidden gem,” said Clites, an author of two books on local history.
While most discussion on the river project has centered around removing the dam under the Blue Bridge to return the river to its natural state, Clites and Miltenberger feel that the dam itself provides an opportunity that history has already shown can create a successful attraction.
“A fact that is not debatable is that at the turn of the 20th century the water above the dam provided recreational boating and other activities for not hundreds, but thousands in the Cumberland area,” said Clites.
Clites and Miltenberger presented their ideas during the public input portion of the regular meeting of the Cumberland mayor and City Council held July 2 at City Hall.
Before the current industrial dam, built in 1959, there was the C&O Canal Dam, built in the 1840s at the confluence of Wills Creek and the Potomac.
According to Clites, before it was finally removed in 1955 as part of flood control efforts, the C&O Canal Dam created slack water that was widely used in the area for recreation.
Deep slack water is required to support boating, especially during periods of drought.
Widespread river activities flourished in the period of time between the C&O Canal Dam’s creation and the introduction of pollutants during the industrial expansion that occurred in the area following World War I.
Clites said that the Potomac was even used as a source of drinking water for the city prior to the industrial pollution. Beginning in 1913, the city of Cumberland had a dam constructed on Evitts Creek, across the state line in Pennsylvania, to create Lake Gordon, its current source of water.
The Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., which used the Potomac River waters, opened in Cumberland in April 1921. Other mining and industrial business entities, including the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co., also accessed the river.
Any future usage of the river waters hinges on the results of water quality and sediment sample testing that must be completed to determine the amount of toxins present. American Rivers, an organization in Washington, D.C., that assists in river cleanups, hopes to raise the funding needed to allow testing to begin in the fall.
“What you have (the stretch behind the dam) is basically like a flat lake that the drop on it is very little,” said Miltenberger.
Miltenberger said he has postcards from 100 years ago depicting activities on the river. Clites also has documentation and photos from what he calls the “glory days” of the waterway.
Clites said the river attracted many recreation-related businesses.
“The Shawnee Canoe Club operated where Riverside Park is located. I have pictures of it. They had group floats and pinics and that sort of thing,” said Clites.
Another river business was the Potomac Club, in Ridgeley, that later was named the Cumberland Boating and Tennis Club. The club operated from 1905 to 1919, according to Clites.
Buck Dryer was a famous waterman of the day, according to Clites. Dryer operated a commercial boating business that included two steam-powered paddle boats. Outings took people from Cumberland to a location known as Dryer’s Beach about 3 miles up the North Branch.
“The biggest thing needed now is access. The railroad owns the property on both sides,” said Clites.
Both Clites and Miltenberger agree that testing of the water and sediments is the first step.
“Not only could you have the steam locomotive, but you could possibly have a steam riverboat with a big paddle wheel. You could have tours with kids and families,” said Miltenberger.
Miltenberger said that the dam, with its heavy water flow nine or 10 months of the year, should be examined as a potential source of generating electricity.
“We need to have open presentation so ideas can flow. That’s important,” said Miltenberger.
“Canoeists, if they want, could develop a little lock system or even a gradual slide where they could traverse the dam. If you worry about fish, you could build a fish ladder,” said Miltenberger.
Both men stressed the importance of keeping debris behind the dam removed to prevent damage to the dam and bridge.
Greg Larry can be contacted at email@example.com.