Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Western Maryland Rail Trail: West from Hancock

The Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) still beckoned to us, even though we hadn't liked the east-from-Hancock section of it very much (for that stretch, recommend sticking to the C&O Canal, which is further away from the highway and a little more pleasant, but read more about that here). The blurb about the western half in the Rails to Trails book sounded interesting, mentioning the remains of an old cement factory, and some views of the Potomac.

Remnants of the rail road era still evident along the WMRT. 

A humid summer morning seemed like an ideal time to check out the rest of the trail; it was mostly a shaded trail and  it wasn't supposed to get much past 85 degrees. We started where we'd turned around the last trip, planning on an easy 20-mile ride (which turned into more of a 23 mile ride, still easy). There's a convenient park and ride just east of the Park and Dine along Main Street (MD Rt 144), the main drag leading into Hancock from I70.

The Western Maryland Railway actually operated in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It was primarily a coal-hauling and freight railroad, with a small passenger train operation. It once stretched from Baltimore through Hagerstown and Hancock to Cumberland and on into Pennsylvania.

The railroad started on May 27, 1852, when the Maryland General Assembly granted a charter to the "Baltimore, Carroll & Frederick Rail Road" to build a line from Baltimore northwest through Westminister then west to Hagerstown. The name of the enterprise was soon changed to "Western Maryland Rail Road."

The line was opened as far as Union Bridge in November 1862, and as with many railroads in war-torn areas, the Union and Confederate armies skirmished over it, but it was in the hands of the Union Army during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Construction resumed in 1868. The line reached Hagerstown in 1872 and was extended a few miles to a connection with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at Williamsport in 1873. The main line eventually was extended from Williamsport and Big Pool, MD, and across the Potomac River to Cherry Run, WV. In 1881, The railroad leased a line north to Shippensburg, PA.

Most of the original railroad west of Big Pool has been abandoned, including the 2,375-foot summit of the Allegheny Mountains and the Eastern Continental Divide near Deal, PA. In addition to CSX, portions of the former WM are now operated by Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, the Maryland Midland Railway, Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, and York Railway. Other portions are now rail trails, such as the Western Maryland Rail Trail.

The WMRT is paved, which makes it an easy ride. Although not flat, the elevation gain is not significant. Anyone can do this ride. The WMRT is 23 miles long; ambitious and fit riders can do the entire length and back fairly easily, I imagine. but 46 miles is too long for us. From the park and ride in Hancock, we figured we'd go about 10 miles, then turn back and have lunch at one of Hancock's restaurants (there are several right along the WMRT). Heading west out of Hancock, you're facing a slight elevation gain -- slight enough that my husband and I argued about whether we were really going up. He was having a hard ride, but I suspect his brake was sticking again, making him pedal harder than he should have. He also was riding a mountain bike whereas I was cruising fairly easily on my neat little Trek hybrid.

Going west from Hancock is a more interesting ride than the eastern half by far! We passed ruins of farmhouses, the chimney of an old cement factory (not the chimney shown in the photo, though), and remnants of the railroad's heyday (see below). 

Last time we rode the WMRT, we ate at the Park and Dine in Hancock, a pleasant little diner, but still a bit of a greasy spoon. This time we chose Buddylou's Eats, Drinks and Antiques, where we enjoyed tasty sandwiches and cold rootbeer; after lunch we browsed through the antiques. What is so fun about Buddylous is the decor -- old flannel plaid shirt sleeves created unique and upcycled window treatments, echoing the flannel plaid seat cushions. What a clever idea!!

If you want to vary your scenery, then consider riding one way on the WMRT, and then cross over to the C&O Canal towpath for the ride back. We stayed on the WMRT both ways, but we noted that at about 10 miles west of Hancock there's a bridge over the canal to the towpath, and just below Buddylou's, there's a truss bridge over the canal, so it would be quite easy to do.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Eating Smith Island Cake on Smith Island

I'd heard about Maryland's state dessert for years, but never tried it. And since the 2-day trip on the Southern Lights excursion aboard the MV Sharpes Island with Captain Jack and the afternoon visit to nearby Tangier Island (VA), I've wanted to visit Smith Island.

I was hoping it was as cute and quaint as Tangier Island. But I also hoped it would be better -- because it's Maryland's quaint and cute island.

Once home to 800 residents, Smith Island now has 240 year round residents, spread between the villages of Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Smith Island isn't one of the Chesapeake Bay's disappearing islands, yet. But it has been shrinking in size for centuries, due to a combination of its low elevation and storm erosion. In the last 150 years, Smith Island has lost more than 3,300 acres of wetlands due to erosion, although efforts are now underway to prevent the island from being lost; these restoration efforts will last for the next 50 years and will restore 1,900 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation and 240 acres of wetlands.

Catching and marketing soft shell crabs is the island's primary industry. Many of the islanders get jobs on the barges plying the Bay or work on the mainland.

If you want to get there, you'll do so by boat or ferry. Passenger-only ferries connect Smith Island at Ewell to Solomons, MD, on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay or from Crisfield, MD on its Eastern Shore, which is where we caught the ferry over. There are several restaurants in Crisfield, but don't waste your time asking for a recommendation from the ferry ticket sales office: they will suggest you wait to eat on Smith Island. When I said we wanted to eat before then, they still didn't offer any names. Oh well. Crisfield isn't huge: go down to the docks following the main drag in and you'll find a couple of restaurants, where you can get a tasty sandwich.

It was a pleasant hour-long ride, during which we passed Janes Island and the remnants of an old packing plant just outside of Crisfield. We'd have about 2 to 2 1/2 hours on the island before the ferry took us back to Crisfield.

When we arrived on the island, we were docked right in front of one of the town's two restaurants (although the second one didn't look open). Many of the other passengers decided to have lunch. Since we'd dined in Crisfield before boarding the ferry, we decided to just have dessert instead.

Smith Island is known for -- and Maryland's official state dessert is -- a locally produced cake featuring 8 to 15 very thin layers, in between which is creme or, more commonly, cooked chocolate icing. We tried two kinds of Smith Island Cake: the traditional yellow cake with chocolate icing and an orange cake with orange creme icing. The cake we tried had 10 or 11 layers -- impressive and beautiful. The most common flavor is yellow cake with chocolate icing but other flavors such as coconut, fig, strawberry, lemon, and orange.

Beginning in the 1800s, Smith Islanders would send these cakes with the watermen on the autumn oyster harvest. Now the cake is often made using a commercial cake mix but with unique additions such as condensed milk, which makes the cake part heavier and more sturdy. It can also be made from scratch using flour. The dessert is baked for any occasion and not reserved only for holidays. Locals told us that girls weren't considered to be marriageable until they could bake a decent Smith Island Cake. Well, I would have been screwed: I still can't bake a cake from scratch.

Interested in trying to make this cake the easy way?

For the cake:
4 eggs
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 cup tap / bottled water
1/2 stick butter
1 box Classic Yellow cake mix

Directions: Place all ingredients in a bow and mix for 10 minutes. Put roughly 3/4 cup batter in greased cake pans (I use a light coating of Pam cooking spray). Use the back of a spoon to gently and evening spread the batter to cover the bottom of each pan. Place in a 350 degree oven and bake for 8 - 10 minutes or until the edge starts to brown. Repeat over and over. Batter should yield 8 layers.

For the icing:
1 lb powdered sugar
3 heaping TBsp dry cocoa
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 stick COLD butter

Directions: Put powdered sugar, cocoa, evaporated milk in medium sauce pan and mix together. Add cold butter. Place over high heat, stirring constantly until ingredients are combined and butter is melted. Remove from heat and whip icing a few times before icing cake. Icing should have a glossy appearance.
Putting it together:
Add dollop of icing in the middle of the cake plate or cardboard round and put the first layer in place. Add large spoonful of icing to the top of the layer and, working quickly, spread the icing to the edges of the cake. Place the 2nd layer and repeat, through the 7th layer. Add top layer, spread icing on the sides of the cake first and then finish frosting the top.
On the island you may notice that Smith Islanders have a peculiar accent. Not so much like old English anymore, but it does stand out from the typical southern Maryland accent. Apparently, this accent stems from the island being so isolated throughout the years. It originally was settled in 1686 by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler (hence, Tylerton). Also worth noting: Smith Island became a base of operations during the Revolutionary War for British troops.

You'll notice, too, when you visit, that Smith Island, like Tangier Island, is very Methodist. The Methodist church is the largest, and the island is dry due to its Methodist heritage (traditional Methodists eschewed cards, alcohol, and dancing; modern Methodists have largely made their peace with these sins, but the island retains its conservative heritage).

So what is there to do on Smith Island? Not much, really, and that's the attraction of it. Relax and enjoy the water sights and scenery. Rent a bicycle and ride around the island (that's my top recommendation). Or rent a golf cart -- which is what we did -- and explore the island.

If you stay over night at one of the island's few bed and breakfast inns (2-night minimum stay required), you'll have the opportunity to go kayaking through the island and marshes. The meandering creeks, or "guts," through the island's 8,000 acres of marsh provide extensive opportunities for paddlers and photographers. You could also take a boat over to Tylerton, accessible only by boat, even from Ewell. Or you could take the ferry to one of the other nearby islands, including Tangier.

The shallow waters surrounding Smith Island are a fishing haven for herons, egrets, ibis, osprey and pelicans. The northern part of the island is home to the Martin National Wildlife Refuge, making the island a destination for bird watchers in certain seasons. We didn't venture very far out of Ewell, and only saw a great blue heron, a green heron, and an egret -- ubiquitous throughout wetlands in the mid-Atlantic region, but still very cool birds.

Tip #1: If you rent a golf cart, 30 minutes is plenty to explore the WHOLE area around Ewell. We wre greedy so we rented it for a full hour: we rode around the twice, taking some time to explore the lovely and deteriorating old gable houses. I felt sure they must be haunted, if only with the memories of a way of life that is fast disappearing.

Tip #2: In Ewell, The Bayside Inn and Ruke's (which seemed to be closed on the weekday we were there) are located close to the ferry and the Smith Island Heritage Center. The Bayside Inn also offers hand-scooped ice cream.

Tip #3: Take a half hour to visit the Smith Island Cultural Center and museum. Jam packed with history and interesting information about the island, it's well worth the couple-dollar entry fee. You will learn, among other things, that there are 100 operational cars, trucks, and buses on the island, but that there are over 200 vehicles buried on the island.

Getting there: You can catch ferries to Smith Island from several points. The Capt Jason II passenger ferry, which we took, leaves from Crisfield or from Solomon's Island. The ride from Solomon's Island is longer than from Crisfield, but the drive from Baltimore is longer to Crisfield, so it's six and one half dozen the other which point you catch the ferry; I suppose the longer ferry ride would have been very enjoyable. You can catch ferries, I believe, from other towns as well.

Hours: Check the ferry website for departure times.

Dogs: Surprisingly, yes! Your pooch, if you go during the summer months, can dine with you on the restaurant's porch and is welcome on the ferry, as long as your pooch leaves the Captain's dog alone.

Website: and

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Another Smith Island Cake Recipe (from scratch)

16 servings

For the cake
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks; plus more for greasing the pans
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
1 cup evaporated milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup water

For the icing
2 cups sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. For the cake: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Use butter to lightly grease ten 9-inch cake pans, or use 2 or 3 cake pans at a time and re-grease them as needed.
  2. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder.
  3. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time; beat until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients 1 cup at a time; beat until incorporated. Still on low speed, add the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water, beating until well combined.
  4. Place 3 serving spoonfuls of batter in each of the cake pans (about 2/3 cup); use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake 2 or 3 layers at a time on the middle oven rack for 8 to 9 minutes. (A layer is done when you hold it near your ear and do not hear it sizzle.)
  5. While the cakes are baking, make the icing: Combine the sugar and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate and butter; warm through, stirring, until both have melted. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract, stirring to combine. The icing will be thin but will thicken as it cools.
  6. As the cake layers are done, run a spatula around the edge of the pan and ease out the layers. Let them cool. Place the bottom layer on a cake plate; spread 2 or 3 spoonfuls of icing on each layer. (Don’t worry if a layer tears; no one will notice when the cake is finished.) Cover the top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing; push any icing that runs onto the plate back onto the cake.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On the Trail of the Lower NCR: Ashland to Mile Marker 10

Through fortuitous circumstances, I find myself suddenly needing to get my ass off the couch and start training for a 30-mile bikeride: the MS Bike-a-thon in New York City in early October. I can do 15 miles easy -- but that's only half. (I welcome your sponsorship, as I have to raise a minimum amount to participate. Click here if you're interested in helping sponsor our ride and donating to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society!)

I've blogged about riding on the NCR several times before (check out here), but with today's ride, I've now ridden almost the entire Maryland length of the NCR Trail (except for 1 mile of it). The plan for this ride was to meet at the parking lot off of Paper Mill Road in Ashland, then bike up to mile marker 10, and turn around: an easy 18 miles.

During previous rides, we saw posts with W emblazoned on it, and I couldn't understand what that meant. W for west? But they faced in both directions (besides, the trail runs north/south not east/west). I found the answer recently while reading about the Western Maryland Rail Trail: the W stands for "whistle," as in "blow the."

Ironically, at mile 15 we're all feeling good: WE CAN DO THIS! And we start discussing the C&O Canal tow path and I mention how I started biking just to do a 4-day ride along the tow path. Then we discuss how expensive the tours are for rides like that (I'd really like to spend each night at a hotel, with a hot shower and a really soft pillow). And suddenly we have crafted a plan for the ride next fall. So in addition to the MS Bike-a-thon, now I also must start preparing for 4 days and at least 120 miles (yeah, so we're not going to ride the WHOLE length), possibly also this fall.

Where: 1235 Paper Mill Trail, Ashland, MD

Hours: Dawn to dusk

Dogs: Absolutely. We saw dog walkers, joggers with dogs, and even a cyclist with a happy dog jogging along!

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