The forty-five years between 1895 and 1940 brought about the most change in the history of downtown Cumberland. Some would debate this saying that the urban renewal of the 1960s or creation of the mall in the 1970s was a much larger transformation. The major buildings of Baltimore Street and most of those on the side streets built before 1940 still remain today. Although the occupants have changed, the structures have been preserved. Modern downtown Cumberland remains a city built between 1895 and 1940.
In the late 1800s, the streets of Cumberland appeared much like they looked four decades earlier. Wood-frame, mostly two- and three-story buildings lined Baltimore Street. The streets were paved with wooden blocks and trolley car tracks supported the transportation systems that began in 1891. The wooden blocks were covered in the pollution left by horses and horse drawn wagons. The downtown was made worse by the frequent flooding the downtown suffered.
Downtown, especially Baltimore Street and the main cross streets, George, Centre, Liberty and Mechanic, would change dramatically from 1895-1940. The dirt on the streets and the cinders from trains faded away. The concrete sidewalks were filled with bustling pedestrian and automobile traffic patronizing the magnificent stores of the “new” downtown Cumberland.
Growth of a More Modern Cumberland
Beginning in the 1940s, the last of the frame buildings had been razed and the town’s old Civil War image now boasted modern department stores such as Rosenbaum’s and the McMullen Brothers. This was the time that many of the familiar names were downtown, including Wolfe Furniture, McCroy’s, G.C. Murphy, F.W. Woolworth, Sears, Montgomery Ward, Ford’s Pharmacies and People’s Drug Store. Peskin’s was selling shoes while Schwarzenbach’s catered to the male clientele and Lazarus was the place women shopped for fashion. The bigger stores were supplemented by a host of smaller businesses including S.T. Little Jewelry and Barns Jewelry. The side street businesses added support to the big stores on Baltimore Street. After shopping, a group might take in a movie at one of the five downtown theaters, the Strand and Maryland being the best patronized, or, partake in cocktails at the lounges at the Fort Cumberland or Algonquin Hotels. Dining was available at many locations ranging from fancy at the Fort Cumberland Hotel to other short order establishments like the Capital Lunchroom. Most Cumberlanders, however, ate at more modest establishments like Sheehe’s or the Liberty Tavern.
Downtown Cumberland, by 1940, had become the mercantile center of western Maryland and the surrounding region and was easily accessible by the network of highways that radiated from downtown in all directions, including into West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Some people rode the train in from nearby areas. Downtown stores were modern for the time and offered just about anything people needed or wanted. In those days, if a store didn’t have something you wanted, they would gladly order it for you.
The War Years
While factories in the Cumberland area, and everywhere in the country, geared up to produce war related products, the stores in downtown suffered from the shortage of consumer goods and there were fewer automobiles on the streets due to gasoline and tire rationing. As WWII ended, people took to the streets of downtown Cumberland to celebrate. With the war finally over and the pent-up demand for consumer goods overwhelming, downtown Cumberland was in a period of prosperity it had not seen since the 1920s. The first Christmas after the end of the war in 1945 saw downtown and the surrounding cross streets crowded with shoppers. Consumer goods were still in short supply, though, and people had to purchase what was available.
By early 1947 with U.S. industry turning out goods for the eager consumer flush with money saved during the war, business boomed in Cumberland. Consumer goods were now on the shelves and the post war buying spree was on for everything from nylons to tires to new automobiles. Downtown Cumberland business establishments rendered one of their most prosperous eras.
Many of the baby boomers remember the downtown Cumberland of the 1950s with great nostalgia. We tend to see the 1950s as the great golden age of downtown Cumberland, as you could buy just about anything you wanted. There were five movie theaters to choose from and often on Saturdays young people would go to the Garden for a 10-cent double feature, then in the afternoon or evening take in another feature at one of the other theatres. There were a host of restaurants to choose from with anything from a cheap lunch room or the counter at McCoury’s or Murphy’s to the mid-price establishments such as the Liberty Tavern, serving a good steak dinner for four dollars. If anyone wanted something classier, there was Anton’s in the upscale Fort Cumberland hotel. Local industries were beginning to grow and employed citizens had a good wage so there was money to spend in downtown Cumberland.
The 1950s was a time when people dressed up to come downtown and shop at the large department stores and specialty shops. If you didn’t want to drive, buses ran frequently from other parts of the city so that people had easy access to downtown. As more and more people bought cars and transportation around the area was made easy by good roads, strip malls and other shopping areas grew on the outskirts of Cumberland. This would change downtown shopping like nothing had in the past.
The 1960s and Beyond
Downtown Cumberland was significantly changed by urban renewal in the 1960s. The 1960s brought the Queen City Drive loop road and the Gee Bee shopping Center (now Rose’s). Other connector streets to Baltimore Street were improved. 1975 brought the beginning of the revitalization of the downtown Cumberland shopping district including underground electrical, telephone, and cable TV lines. In May of 1978, barricades were erected at Mechanic and Baltimore Streets beginning the construction of the Downtown Cumberland Pedestrian Mall. Over the years some of the family stores that thrived to the third generation closed as enclosed malls and Internet shopping caused a decline for Cumberland as a regional shopping center. The economic impact of business and industry loss had a huge impact to downtown as well, due to population decline. Many of the classic Cumberland buildings like movie theatres and other buildings are welcome in today’s environment.
Growth of small specialty shops addressing personal needs of consumers. Mixture of business and retail, while still offering a variety of restaurants and outdoor dining. Seasonal events and special events.
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