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Cascade was 'a little oasis'

Mountaintop town has seen many changes

Mountaintop town has seen many changes

July 18, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

CASCADE

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a summer series examining the histories of local communities in Washington County.

heatherk@herald-mail.com

It was the railroad that brought them, but the cars that took them away.

At least that's Richard Happel's assessment of the development of Cascade, the mountaintop town at the northeastern corner of Washington County that now teeters uncertainly as residents and developers argue over the future of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

Happel, 96, a descendant of one of the Cascade area's first residents, remembers picking blackberries with his grandmother on the land that is now Fort Ritchie.

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Over the years, he and his family saw the land transformed from farmland to a summer resort for wealthy vacationers in the early 1900s to the home of the legendary Ritchie Boys during World War II to the pleasant one-stoplight town of about 1,400 residents it is today.

'Little oasis on the mountain'


The remote area, a plateau in the Catoctin range of the Blue Ridge Mountains, drew its first real interest from the rest of the state in 1871 when the Western Maryland Railroad selected the site for an amusement park, according to a Washington County Parks and Recreation brochure.

In 1877, the railroad opened Pen Mar Park, an amusement park that grew over the next few decades to include a dance pavilion, a roller coaster, a silent movie theater, concession stands, a carousel and a penny arcade, said Virginia Bruneske, 81, whose parents ran a hotel next to the park.

Bruneske still lives in the area and can remember amusing herself at the penny arcade for entire afternoons with only a quarter and working at the photo studio as a teenager.

The park, along with Lake Royer, a manmade lake dug by local men around the turn of the century, and the "cascades," beautiful waterfalls used as a picnic spot on Falls Creek, attracted people who took excursion trains and trolleys for afternoon trips, Bruneske said.

The area also attracted wealthy families who built summer homes, and ambassadors, eminent clergy and society members to the area's grand hotels.

"Cascade was your little oasis on the mountain that was relatively close to Baltimore and Washington," said Karl Weissenbach, a historian who took an interest in the town after moving there nine years ago. "It was a place where people came to literally cool off in the days before air conditioning."

In those days, there were only two winter families in Pen Mar, recalled Faye Cohen, 75, of Chevy Chase, Md., who has returned to her family's Pen Mar home every summer for the past 66 years. Many of the hotels have either burned down or been converted to apartment buildings, and most of the summer homes house permanent residents. Cohen believes she is the last remaining summer resident.

"After World War II, everyone got big cars and they decided they didn't want to go to the mountains, that was for old people, and they went to the beach," Cohen said.

As people lost interest in the mountains, the railroad lost interest in the park. It stopped running excursion trains in 1935.

Military intelligence


In 1942, the federal government opened the War Department Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie.

The state of Maryland purchased the land for Camp Ritchie in 1926 and built its historic stone buildings as a base for the Maryland National Guard.

During World War II, the federal government leased the camp as an intelligence center and housed 20,000 troops over a four-year period, according to the 2004 documentary film "The Ritchie Boys." Many of these men were refugees from Nazi Germany, trained in interrogation and sent back to fight the Nazi regime.

Fort Ritchie was used for Army support until it closed in 1998.

"I know a lot of (military) people who retired here," said Charlotte Selman, 76, of Waynesboro, Pa., who worked at the Fort Ritchie Army and Air Force Exchange Service for 24 years. "When (the fort) closed it was sad," she said. "A lot of jobs were lost. We need to get those back."

'Isolated Shangri-La'


Today, the neighboring areas of Pen Mar, Fort Ritchie and Highfield - collectively known as Cascade - are united by an elementary school, a post office and Weissenbach's Cascade Committee. The next step, Weissenbach and other committee members said, may be a true birth as an official, incorporated town.

"We're not incorporated and we have no mayor, so we really don't have a voice," said Robin Biser, 45, a lifelong resident of Cascade. "The number of voters out here could be made up by one street in Hagerstown, and that's unfortunate. I like to say, 'We're so close to God but so far from Hagerstown.'"

Becoming incorporated would recognize the growth around the area while also giving residents the voice they need to preserve its history, Weissenbach said.

"We are no longer the isolated Shangri-La that some people think we still are," he said. "Those days are gone by the wind."

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