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Jewels in the Queen City's Crown
Pillars of Salt, Post Twenty-one
By the middle of the twentieth century, Cumberland had developed into the picture of an American industrial town. Company towns run exclusively by coal operators were largely a thing of the past. Labor had won important victories both local and national. Unions had carried railroaders and other industrial workers into comfortable pensions. Many in the proletariat could afford a single family home on one income, have two or more children, and take a vacation in the summer.
The robust transportation infrastructure, highly developed and consolidated by the end of the 19th century, was a boon to manufacturers looking to expand into the region. The turn of the century saw a diversification of industry in the Appalachian city, bringing more workers, different streams of immigrants, and further growth to the city’s population. In 1890, the population of Cumberland was just under 13,000. By 1900, about 17,100 people called the city home. At its most populated, around 1940, a little less than 40,000 people lived in the city. Comparably, Baltimore had a population of about 434,000 in 1890, 509,000 in 1900, and just under 860,000 by 1940. Today, about 18,900 people live in Cumberland, making it the 12th largest city in the state.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had built the Queen City Hotel in 1871, which was both a sign and forecast of the city’s fortunes. With 174 guest rooms, a 400-seat dining room, ball room, formal gardens, the hotel doubled as a train station. Located at Park and Harrison Streets, where the present-day United States Post Office and Distribution Center stands, the hotel became a popular destination and draw to the city. Only one year prior, the railroad had completed its line from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, which meant that the city of Cumberland and its stops, hotels, shops, and other places of interest sat at the junction of several important routes west, like the aforementioned to Pittsburgh and the main line west of the Ohio River. Built by in-house railroad architect Thomas N. Haskett, the Italianate style building cost $350,000 at the time, or over 7 million dollars by today’s monetary standards. It was expanded in 1912 to accommodate more passenger traffic and provide space across three stories for railroad business offices. The Baltimore and Ohio were quickly expanding their tourism investments, wasting no time before beginning construction another hotel, farther west in Garrett County. The Deer Park Hotel, opened in 1873.
In 1893, construction on the Allegany County Courthouse began under local architect Wright Butler after the old courthouse burnt down on January 3 of that year. Inspired by Henry Hobson Richardson, the courthouse had that Romanesque feel with stone courses highlighting brick facades with deeply-set windows and a large, grand arch entryway. Butler gave Cumberland its architectural feel with Queen Anne inspired designs, which include such prominent buildings as the courthouse, the Cumberland Liberty Bank building, and the Cumberland Masonic Temple, which forms an easily recognizable pair with the older Emmanuel Episcopal Church, built in 1850 on the site of the old Fort Cumberland in an early Gothic Revival design.
In a touch of fin de siècle perfection, Rosenbaum Brothers Department Store opened the doors to its newly completed five-story, 10,000 square foot location at 118 Baltimore Street in 1899. A general store founded and operated by Prussian immigrants Henry and Selig Adler as early as 1848, the brothers Simon and Susman Rosenbaum bought and renamed the store in 1878. The new building by architect J. S. Seibert was symbolic of an emergent phase of American consumerism and an important forerunner of the big-box department stores that dominate retail today. With over 200 employees, Rosenbaum’s was the largest department store between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Its location south across the tracks from the Queen City Hotel and eventually north of the historic Cumberland Station, opened by Western Maryland Railway in 1913, the department store would help define the booming downtown as a center for shopping and commerce until it closed in 1971. The building was then owned for a time by M&T Bank, serving as their regional headquarters, until being bought by the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation in 2019. The building stands vacant as of this writing. There are indeterminate plans to open a hotel at the location, which investors claim requires opening the Baltimore Street pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic.
The beginning of the 20th century saw downtown transformed into something familiar, recognizable today. Official buildings were replaced or constructed after fire destroyed key architecture in 1910, when the old city hall and Academy of Music was razed. The new city hall was raised on Pershing Street, a block over from the commercial sector, completed in 1911, one year before the First National Bank put up their own building on Baltimore Street, ironically competing with the older Second National Bank, which had completed its idiosyncratic Byzantine-Romanesque blended building under the supervision of local architect Bruce Price in 1890.
Aside from coal mining and railroads, glass production counts among the oldest industries in Cumberland. The Warren Glass Company operated under various names from 1889 to 1913 and Cumberland Glass Works fared similarly from 1884 until 1920.
Beer was another thriving industry in the region. The Cumberland Brewing Company opened in 1890, becoming one of the larger and more successful of the thirteen local breweries operating in and around the city since 1888. The Queen City Brewing Company emerged as another large competitor in 1901 and was the last to close its doors in 1974, forced out of business by national conglomerates. The German Brewing Company also opened in 1901 and changed its name briefly to The Liberty Brewing Company during World War I to avoid Teutonic associations with the enemy. After reverting to its original name, the company again rebranded to “Queeno” to produce a “near-beer” non-alcoholic brew during Prohibition. Out of these breweries came bottling operations. By 1922 there were five companies bottling sodas and other products — the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, L. T. Carpenter and Son, Whistling Bottling Company, Ver-Vac Bottling Company, and the Malamphy Bottling Works.
Malamphy was run by its namesake, Michael J., who lived behind a saloon he operated at 506 and 508 Park street in the Rolling Mill neighborhood, which the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation is currently eyeing for wholesale demolition in order to develop low-density commercial sprawl.
Other industry opening operations in Cumberland in the early twentieth century were the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company in 1921, and, on Christmas Day, 1924, the American Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Company spun the first spool of acetate yarn in the entire country. American Cellulose became known as “Amcell” and, later, the Celanese fiber plant, which would employ 13,000 people by the middle of the 1960s producing artificial silk, polyester, and permanent-press materials. To entice companies to the area, the city of Cumberland gave away free land — 81 acres to Kelly-Springfield — and huge subsidies to the companies for construction. Kelly-Springfield alone received $750,000 toward construction, as well as promises from the city to improve road, water, and sewage lines servicing the plant. Valued by today’s standards, that’s just over 10 million dollars gifted from the city to a private corporation.
Two years after the tire plant opened, my great-great-grandfather died when his arms were crushed by heavy machinery at the Kelly-Springfield. My great-grandfather was only seven-years-old at the time. His mother would die a few years later of pneumonia. My great-grandfather was sent to live with an aunt and uncle. He worked the farm and helped stock a general store as a teenager before eventually going to work in the same factory that killed his father. My great-grandmother would joke that her husband had been fired from every job in Cumberland. That is because he would work, then be furloughed, told to come back when labor was needed. He himself said this happened five or six times just at Kelly-Springfield until he eventually told them not to bother calling him anymore. He worked forestry in the Green Ridge Mountains as part of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and then joined the army during World War II, spending his tours in the Pacific and Japan.
The dangerous working conditions that killed my great-great-grandfather fueled a robust labor movement in the city. Organizing through the 1920s and -30s resulted in the unionization of the Celanese in 1936 under the Textile Workers of America. In 1937, the United Rubber Workers of America unionized the Kelly-Springfield plant. The Congress of Industrial Workers helped spearhead some organizing efforts in the city and a strike at the Celanese in 1936-37 led to riots. At the time, laborers, including children, worked 10-hour days, six days a week, for less than $10 a week. When the dust settled, workers had won reduced hours and increased wages, clear procedures for the redress of grievances, and recognition of their union.
Early in the Red Scare, no doubt part of the reactionary backlash against labor victories in the city, combined with the post-War prominence of the Soviet Union as a world power, Cumberland passed an anti-communist city ordinance in 1950. Anyone associate with a communist party had to register with the city and it was illegal to distribute Leftist literature. There was a wave of political arrests and charges, but the law was deemed unconstitutional within a year.
This is where history ends for some people. As I have said, the immediate post-War period represented a high-water mark in the boom-times for Cumberland. Things continued this way into the 1960s, but the writing was beginning to appear on the wall. In 1961, the Cumberland Glass Company, the last producer of hand-blown glass in the area, was shuttered.
The Interstate Highway system was being constructed in earnest. The railroads were in decline. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway took control of a struggling Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1963, after the latter had retired its last steam engine in 1960 and ceased all passenger service north of Baltimore in 1958. The transportation nexus that had made Cumberland a hot spot for industrial development was weakening. The flow of goods and raw materials through the region was slowing. Development in the west, increasingly accessible via roadways and alternative, more modern, transportation schemes meant that the Cumberland Narrows had done its job. It had opened new regions for exploitation, but those had now outstripped the old byways and thoroughfares for which the Narrows had been a trailblazer. The advent of so-called “Right to Work” laws in 1946, first passed in Arkansas and Florida, were used to beat back Union advances, meaning the industries bribed by the city of Cumberland to build there were soon leaving to pay cheaper wages and exploit workers elsewhere.
Local stalwarts like the Queen City Brewery, which had survived Prohibition, began closing in the early 1970s. The Celanese and Kelly-Springfield wound down operations, laid off their work force, before leaving entirely in 1983 and 1987 respectively. The governor of Maryland at the time, William Donald Schaeffer, managed to keep the corporate offices of Kelly-Springfield in Cumberland for another twelve years, but the damage was done. The plant had employed upwards of 3,000 people and the Celanese boasted of its 13,000 employees. With just those two gone, the number of employment opportunities decreased sharply and the city lost a number of jobs equal to almost half its entire population.
So, I suspect, when certain sectors of Cumberland begin to talk about making things great again, this is the time to which we are supposed to return. Sometime between when my great-great-grandfather bled to death from corporate negligence and when unions won living wages from capital. It is the fantasy of would-be business owners without the infrastructure and city subsidies to grease the wheels, to bribe the already wealthy to come to town about put literal children to work.
This is the image of Cumberland that is polished up in my mind, the verisimilitude in which my friends and I were supposed to be raised. Like the comic that shows us all the popular Christmas songs come from the 1950s, a few from the 40s or 60s, the childhood of baby boomers and elder gen X-ers are painted as that eternal shore toward which we row, our lives a little better than our parents’, their’s a little better than our grandparents’, and so on forward beyond the end of history. Small wonder one of our best-known local celebrities is Eddie Deezen, famous for playing nerd Eugene Felsnic in the movie adaptation of the musical Grease, a film dripping with an unforgivable nostalgia for sock hops and soda jerks.
But we keep moving. The new highway comes through, and the wealth and resources stream on by. They don’t stop any more. There’s not enough capital swirling through the corporate eddies in town to trickle down to the hollers any more. The question, returning ever more earnestly, ever more frequently — what is to be done?