Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ghost Towns of the Upper Potomac Rail Hike

It was early Fall when a local friend of mine named Kurtis Kelly, had the extraordinary insight of hiking along active but rarely used rail tracks along the N. Branch of the Potomac River. This inspiration came to him from a rare book titled Ghost Towns of the Upper Potomac by the Garrett Co. Historical Socieity. Rare, because it's printing was very limited and it can only be found in tourism information areas in Garrett Co.
So we decided to begin our first hike out of the
19th century town of Gormania, WV or Gorman, MD -- the two named towns separated only by the Potomac River. We began our journey by parking our car behind the Gormania Gas and Go along the river. We then crossed the Potomac River bridge onto the Maryland side where the rail tracks are located. We began hiking down stream in search of Ghost towns and abandoned villages forgotten about over the decades.

The reason that Ghost Towns could even exist along these rails, is that once these rails carried passengers, but no more -- the rails owned by CSX now just carry freight about once per day and no longer have passenger stops. So many towns and villages sprung up along these rail tracks around 1900 through the 1920's. The economies were predominantly virgin forest timbering and mining. Once the virgin forest in the region were depleted, these roadless villages, only accessible by train, died and were abandoned. Some structures, and even a whole small village in the middle of nowhere, still exist today from that hayday. We were in search of them.

So we set out on an extraordinary 8 mile rail hike along the N. Branch of the Potomac River, from Gormania to the Schell Road swim hole. What we found was truly extraoridinay. We found rugged white water, cascades, waterfalls, deep swim holes and tributaries of this pristine high mountain river as only those who once inhabited the past hamlets and abandoned towns once observed, very long ago -- we deemed this stretch of the N. Branch Potomac The Forgotten River.

Words can only describe the pristine white water river that we encountered along the rail hike that was almost always in view of our hike. Photos, shown in a gallery at :http://www.abramscreek.com/galleries/gormania-rail-hike/index.html

are far better than words. However, we would frequently hear rushing waters along our hike and we would venture down to the river to find watefalls, flumes, giant cascades, and troughs where the whole river went into a narrow canyon only a few feet wide. We encounted giant boulders and deep crystal clear swim holes. We marked so many points on our mobile GPS device to come back to and camp overnight sometime (because of the shear beauty of these spots) that it was almost pointless to mark them, as the beauty never ended.

Along the way, we found a wild blueberry bush and ate. We found a wild grape vine so full of ripe grapes that we spent about 10 minutes eating surprisingly sweet grapes as we continued to pull them from the heavily laden vine. While we didn't encounter any significant ghost towns along this stretch of the hike, we did occasionally come across an abandoned structure or two. But not disappointed, as the beauty of the rugged Potomac was all that we needed. It was honestly one of the best hikes and scenery that I have ever encounted in 5 years in the Potomac Highlands -- bar none. And nobody else does it or even thinks about it. I am inviting you to come and experience it for yourself.

Ghost Towns of the Upper Potomac (book written/published by the Garrett County Historical Society):

This book focuses on a very small area along the Potomac River that divides Garrett County, MD and Grant and Mineral Counties, WV, a total of about 30 miles or so. Within that distance the book (a joint effort published by the Garrett County Historical Society) lists and describes about 30 coal towns, most of which are ghosts or barely still in existence. A few places such as Kitzmiller and Bayard are still very much alive and even support post offices yet. The most interesting feature of the book is the inclusion of a large number of photographs and postcards of most of the towns - some of them taken shortly after one or another of the numerous floods that occur along this mountainous stretch of Potomac River. These coal towns seem gritty and fragile places, though stubborn in their existence: many of them could only be entered or left via the railroad. The book is an interesting look at once thriving places of not too long ago that may or may not have seen better days.


  1. Sounds like you may have stumbled on a new kind of tourism for those who like to travel off of the beaten path. It remids me of the book that originally came out in the 80s...Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, about a man who traveled only on the smaller roads that used to be "blue lines" on the old maps. Did you get a sense of what it was like to have lived on those old railroad lines? Nancy Smeltzer

  2. Gormania here I come! This is a really unique idea. The idea of exploring in Maryland/West Virginia for abandoned towns is intriguing. I'm thinking about taking my 14 year old son on that trip -- tips on safety? I'd love to see your GPS points. If you don't have a way to share them take a peek at http://mdtrails.com I'll keep my eyes open to see if you have any GPS points to share.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. i was planning to visit Rhode Island Campgrounds but now my mind is changed and i will turn my face to potomac rail tracks and the ghost towns as this is looking more interesting and enjoyable.