Known as the "Gateway to the West," Cumberland (population 23,901) was established in 1787 at the mouth of Wills Creek on the Potomac River, on the edge of the Allegany Highlands of western Maryland.
The settlement grew up near the former site of Fort Cumberland (1754-1765), one of George Washington's outposts during the French and Indian War. Washington later visited the area as President in 1794 in order to review troops mustered to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
Cumberland gained prominence during the 19th century as a transportation center. The city was the site of the beginning of the United States' first National Road—now known as U.S. 40, or National Highway—the western terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal from Washington, DC, and a railroad center. Cumberland became an important railroad stop between Baltimore and Chicago.
The city became less dependent on railroads as more industry moved to the area. In the mid- to late-19th century, Cumberland was Maryland's second largest manufacturing center, with such industries as glass-making, breweries, lumber, cleaning and dyeing works, and tinplate.
By the late 20th century, the community was in economic decline. In 2001 the State of Maryland selected Cumberland as one of the first Community Legacy participants, a program designed to assist communities experiencing economic hardship but retaining community investment potential. Cumberland embarked on a five-year plan of action encompassing a multifaceted approach to revitalization.
With a number of public and private partners, there has been a heavy emphasis on both housing and rebuilding community infrastructure. Revitalization efforts also have relied heavily on preservation and use of heritage resources. A downtown historic district is comprised of over 100 historic structures dating from the mid-19th to the early 20th century; a second, largely residential, district is centered on Washington Street.
The Canal Place Preservation District, a locally zoned historic district and a State of Maryland certified Heritage Area, features the terminus of the C&O Canal and interprets Cumberland's transportation heritage. The Western Maryland Railway, headquartered in a 1913 train station along with the Canal Place Preservation Authority and a transportation museum, offers daily steam and diesel-powered scenic train trips between Cumberland and Frostburg.
Other cooperative projects include the completed National Register of Historic Places travel itinerary for Cumberland called "All Aboard;" the Great Allegheny Passage (under development) that will connect Cumberland (and ultimately Washington via the C&O Canal towpath) with Pittsburgh through walking and biking trails, and the proposed National Road Scenic Byway.
These projects have been pursued through a broad array of public-private partnerships with Federal, State, and local agencies, non-governmental organizations, and businesses.
Designated a Preserve America Community in August 2004.