Declining for 30 years, Mt. Savage thinks of comeback


BALTIMORE, Friday April 5, 1974


Sunpapers photo-Joseph A DiPaola

Mount Savage, in Allegany County, was a former manufacturing center.

Mount Savage, Md.-At one point in its remarkable history, Mount Savage was perhaps the leading industrial center in western Maryland. Now only a brick factory remains from its manufacturing past and the population declines at every U.S. Census.

Nestled along the hills sloping upward from Jennings Run, Mount Savage has become primarily a residential town. The people work mostly around Cumberland, about 8 miles to the southeast, or Frostburg, 5 miles southwest up the valley.

Permanent European settlement began here probably during or right after the Revolutionary War. The Indian presence had largely subsided as a threat to farms, and the green wilderness of the Appalachian countryside was inviting.

Archibald Arnold established the first farm on a gently rolling hillside near Savage Mountain, allegedly named for a man in the Mason-Dixon party of surveyors. The Arnolds also operated an inn in what came for a while to be known as Arnold's Settlement.

According to research conducted by Charles Carney, a Mount Savage native and history teacher at Beall High School in Frostburg, the original settlers were English who probably came from southern Maryland. Almost all of these early farmers were Catholics.

By 1788, there were 323 families living west of Fort Cumberland. They were soon supplemented by former soldiers granted land in the wilderness for their service in the Revolution. The Arnold family owned most of the land around present day Mount Savage, however. Their settlement was visited in 1793 by the Rev. Stephen T. Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States. The Rev. Demetrius Galitzen, a former Russian nobleman who had become a priest, also celebrated mass at Arnold's Hotel during the late 1790's.

James L. Robison owns the farm on which Arnold's Settlement once stood. His land overlooks the unincorporated town of Mount Savage, which acquired its name with the coming of industry. Mr. Robison often finds arrowheads and stones left by the Shawnee Indians of the Algonquin nation who once roamed throughout this area,

"Mount Savage is a unique town," he said. "There are a lot of nationalities, but the people are good mixers. The people in the three churches-the Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists-get along good. They're independent people, but when the chips are down, they all get together."

Mr. Robison, who moved here from Garrett County in 1936, bought the 380-acre dairy farm in 1948, he said. There are still about five dairy farms in the vicinity of Mount Savage, as well as seven other farms that raise beef cattle and the corn, alfalfa and hay necessary to feed them.

"During the early years of the Nineteenth Century, Mount Savage seemed destined to enjoy a permanent future of pastoral somnolence," wrote Mr. Carney in a historical study of the town. "Suddenly in the 1830's, the valley below the settlement became a scene of great activity. Enterprising English businessmen and impoverished Irish immigrants were creating an amazing industrial complex in this only recent wilderness."

Coal had been discovered in the Georges Creek area below Frostburg in the early 1800's, but transportation still posed problems. No one had the means to move it out of the local area. Iron and fire clay also existed in the mountainsides.

Then came the National Road through Cumberland and Frostburg, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. With English capital, the Maryland and New York Iron and Coal Company was established in 1839.

Two blast furnaces and a rail mill were constructed in Mount Savage. The first solid iron rail in the United States was hammered out with 60-pound mauls in 1838 and, in 1844, when the machinery was installed, the first rolled rail in the United States was manufactured at the Mount Savage Mill.

Through a series of mergers, the iron works were subsequently controlled by the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad Company, incorporated by the Maryland Legislature in 1850. By the 1860's, the C. & P. Railroad was the only railroad running completely through the Georges Creek coal section,

In the meantime, fire clay of superior quality had been discovered among the seams of coal. By 1842, a company had been established to manufacture fire brick and several brickyards subsequently flourished.

William Cullen Bryant, famed poet and newspaper editor, visited the area in 1860 and remarked:

"You alight (from the train) among the smoking furnaces and forges and vast heaps of cinders at Mount Savage, near the foot of the mountain range of that name, a village of 4,000 inhabitants, gathered from various nations, mostly employed in the iron works and the mines and living in cottages."

By the end of the Civil War, the Consolidation Coal Company controlled the mining and railroad interests in Mount Savage. Although the population remained small throughout the Nineteenth Century, the town acquired a regional reputation as an industrial center. Workmen from Mount Savage were known for their skill.

"The community comprised an industrial-agricultural complex perhaps unrivaled in any community of comparable size in the United States," wrote Mr. Carney. "It was an iron town, a coal town, a brick town and a railroad town. Its periphery formed a prosperous farm community."

Joseph G. Farrell is a product of this industrial tradition. His great-grandfather was one of the first engineers for the C&P Railroad, and he was the last. (Passengers service on the C. & P. ended in 1942; the Western Maryland gained complete control of the road in 1953.)

He talked with pride about "the academy," the Mount Savage Locomotive Shops of the C. & P., which built locomotives for companies around the country beginning in the 1880's. "They were considered the most perfect counterbalanced locomotives in the world, and they never had an overhead crane in the shop," he said. The last locomotive was built in Mount Savage in 1917. All that remains of the shops are the original stone buildings, neglected and empty.

"My mother's people were the first settlers here, the Arnolds and Deans," he continued. I'm 71 years old now; when I was a boy, this was one of the busiest places there was in Allegheny County, I guess. Mount Savage was unique among the coal fields. The people here were different, independent. This was never a company town the way Lonaconing and others were. People wouldn't stand for it."

The Irish still form the dominant ethnic group in Mount Savage, along with English, Welsh, a few Germans and Italians. No Afro-Americans or Jews ever seem to have lived there.

There are probably more Catholics represented here than any other religious group. St. Patrick's church dominates the topography of the town. The parochial school, once run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, closed in 1970 because of lack of students and nuns. But the parish has played a key role in the history of Catholicism in this part of Maryland. Many priests and nuns have come from Mount Savage, including the late Edward Cardinal Mooney.

"There's no work here; the younger people have to leave town," said the Rev. John J. Mackey, pastor of St. Patrick's since 1967 and a native Baltimorean. "But the people have a wonderful spirit. They haven't given up, despite the things that have happened through the years."

Mount Savage probably declined as an industrial center because all the leadership and capital had come from outside the town. The town never incorporated and thus had no way to control or influence industry. Better iron ore was found elsewhere; the coal business drastically declined, as well as the railroads.

Joseph E. Lilly is general manager of the Mount Savage Refractories Company, the only industry left in town. The company employs 66 people and operates at full capacity, producing 54,000 fire bricks a day. It is the oldest such enterprise in the country.

"There used to be a real traffic between this area and Baltimore," he said. "Baltimore used to be the main place for us to go both to visit and to find work. But that ended after World War II."

The decline of rail transportation also severed the close links between Baltimore and western Maryland, he said. Now people in this part of the state look more to Pittsburgh for big-city attractions.

His company (owned by a Pennsylvania man) owns much of the land in and around Mount Savage, said Mr. Lilly, including Savage Mountain. Future plans to resume strip mining for coal on the mountain will probably arouse the opposition of the vocal citizens, he said, but he saw no harm in the process; under the current legal requirements for a 100 per cent backfill. He also had no objections to the current strip-mining operations by the Buffalo Coal Company atop Bald Knob above the town.

He smiled at the recollection of a controversy three or four years ago, when several entrepreneurs wanted to fill old mining holes with processed garbage from Baltimore and develop the mountain top with residences and recreation facilities. Local opposition killed the project.

The main street of Mount Savage, that has virtually not changed in appearance since the early 1900's, has no sidewalks. No signs exist to indicate colorful names of streets and neighborhoods such as Foundry Row, Railroad Street, Dutch Hollow, Jealous Row and Slabtown.

One man in Frostburg described Mount Savage as "another world" through which he travels on Route 36 as fast as possible. But there are signs that this old village of about 1,400 people may find another life.

A few retired people and young couples have bought land for houses. The hills and mountains around the town are slowly filling with new inhabitants. Real-estate values are increasing. Mount Savage, a declining town in the last 30 years, might emerge in the 1980's as a place people seek to find a beautiful, quiet area in which to live.