Steven Smith, MD, makes no bones about it. “I’m sort of a country boy, and my wife is a country girl,” he proclaims. Born and raised in the Allegheny Mountains that cradle western Maryland and three neighboring states, Smith came back to Cumberland almost three years ago to continue his practice as a critical-care pulmonologist with Western Maryland Health System after 25 years in big Texas and Oklahoma cities. “We decided it was time to move back to where we wanted to live,” he explains.
Last year he became part of the health system’s forward-moving agenda by taking over the directorship of WMHS’s new hospitalist program, now numbering four physicians, including himself.
Smith chose to indulge his love for the outdoors by buying a home in his native West Virginia, a few minutes from the Maryland border, where his favorite pastimes—hunting, fishing, hiking, and boating—are almost within jumping distance. “With my canoes we can take gentle or whitewater floating expeditions on short notice, too.” In winter, neighboring Allegheny Mountain slopes are a big lure for skiers, although Smith doesn’t number himself among them.
That’s a summary of what area people call “the mountain side of Maryland,” something other physicians appreciate, too. Radiologist Stanley Lambert is a skier and golfer and says, “I’m looking forward to getting my son, who’s three, out for sledding and beginner skiing.” Born in nearby Oakland, Lambert left home for medical training in North Carolina and Virginia, returning partly because Maryland is home, but also because “it’s a beautiful area of the country.”
“I think I was an athlete before I was a doctor,” quips John J. Hewett, MD, also a radiologist. Within minutes he can be biking, hiking, or running on the towpath of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a trail that extends 184.5 miles from Washington and will soon be linked to a former rail line, completing a 350-mile stretch from DC to Pittsburgh. Now he’s looking forward to “an enormous indoor recreation center” soon to open at a resort on nearby Deep Creek Lake. The lure for him: North America’s first indoor kayaking facility.
Hewett was also an engineer before he was a doctor, and a kind of North American nomad on his way to choosing Cumberland as his career location. Spinning a globe at home in a “very small” Manitoba farm town, he decided after high school that Miami was the farthest U.S. destination from home and proceeded there for a first year of college. Later he studied engineering at the University of Arizona, invented a sonographically induced hyperthermia device for treating prostate cancer, attended the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, and trained at the Duke University Medical Center. He is straightforward about why he settled in Cumberland: “I interviewed all over the place, but when I came here I liked what I saw.
“I really am more of a city person,” he says, “but here there’s no traffic. And, between Pittsburgh and Washington, there’s nothing on God’s green earth that you can’t do.” For him that includes spending time with a brother living in Washington, where Hewett is now planning to buy a condo. Driving to both cities, as well as Baltimore, takes two hours or less.
For Hewett, there’s another consideration that even trumps zero traffic. “I do much better here than I would do if I worked in Washington. There’s more opportunity out here.” Read less competition. As he puts it, “In Washington (for instance) there are 12 wolves fighting over one piece of meat. Here, it’s three wolves and five pieces of meat.” The cost of housing is a powerful incentive, too. “I live in a house much too big for a single guy like myself. It cost a third of the price of my brother’s Washington townhouse, and it’s three times bigger.”
The tale of a city
Outdoor activities and a low cost of real estate are only part of the Cumberland saga. The rest of the story is a comfortable and once-again thriving historic town of some 21,000 where, as one city administrator puts it, “you don’t have to cross four lanes of traffic to get a quart of milk.” Barbara Buehl, the executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce, says, “I can drive 24 miles to work (from her 35-acre farm home in a nearby town) with not a single stop light. It’s pretty nice.” Not only that; “I can easily shop in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—all in one day.” A glance at the state map explains why.
The Potomac River, twisting its way east from its Alleghenies source to the Chesapeake Bay, has created a jagged, sawtooth southern border, making Maryland one of the U.S.’ strangest-looking states. Cumberland sits at the apex of a narrow neck of land at one of the river’s sharpest incursions. In a wink you can be in West Virginia to the south. Five miles north is Pennsylvania.
For Smith, it’s the best of two worlds. “It’s just so beautiful to be out driving around, with all the mountains,” he rhapsodizes. But it’s also a plus that he can easily get to the three big cities (Pittsburgh is his favorite) to indulge in myriad sports and cultural amenities.
Cumberland’s history is one of being in the right place at a number of right times, thanks to its location at The Narrows, a rare natural pass through the Appalachian Range that forms an almost unbroken 1,500-mile barrier from Canada to Alabama. (The Allegheny Mountains are part of the long north-south chain.) Shawnee Indians first built a stockade there and tamped down a trade trail to the west. It became a preferred route for pioneer wagon trains. British forces used it as a military highway in the French and Indian War, when General Edward Braddock created Fort Cumberland. It would see both the beginning and end of George Washington’s military career. He fought with Braddock, then returned in 1794 for a final review of troops during the Whisky Rebellion, an uprising of Pennsylvania farmers angered by a tax on booze they were shipping to eastern markets. Washington’s headquarters cabin has been preserved in one of the city’s four parks.
Transportation fame began in earnest in 1806 when Cumberland became the starting point of the National Road, America’s first government-funded highway. Prosperity chugged into the town with the arrival of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1842. Then the city became the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In its heyday, the C&O funneled lumber and other staples, but especially coal from nearby mines, from Cumberland to Washington, DC aboard some 500 boats a season.