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Maryland's Waist : Narrow Strip is Geographic Anomaly

Charles Hillinger's America

October 08, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

HANCOCK, Md. — Maryland is the 42nd smallest state, yet, because of its peculiar shape, it stretches quite a distance, 352 miles by road from Ocean City on the Atlantic to Redhouse, a hamlet in the Appalachian Mountains.

Linking the panhandle of Maryland's mountainous western area with the rest of the state is a geographic anomaly, a 1-mile-wide strip squeezed between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

They call it Maryland's narrow waist.

The town of Hancock, population 1,890, lies smack in the middle of Maryland's narrow waist, between the Mason-Dixon line on the north and the Potomac River on the south.

West Virginia's border with Maryland here is the northern-most point on the Potomac River. Pennsylvania's border with Maryland at Hancock is the Mason-Dixon line.

(Englishmen Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, in the mid-1760s, surveyed disputed, overlapping land grants to determine the 233-mile boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Before the Civil War, the Mason-Dixon line was accepted as the dividing line between slave and free states.)

Life in Maryland's waist is a little different.

Lifelong Marylander

For some, such as 66-year-old Charles Lutman, loyalties run deep. "I'm a lifelong Marylander. I never go over to Pennsylvania or West Virginia, each less than a mile away. There's not much of Maryland in this part of the state, but there's enough of Maryland here for me," he insisted, holding his dog Charlie on his lap as he relaxed in a rocking chair on the front porch of his century-old frame home on Main Street.

"I sit on my front porch here in Hancock and look across the Potomac into West Virginia. I look to the north and see cows grazing on the hills of Pennsylvania," said Sally Fost, 59, a member of the Hancock Town Council.

Hancock policeman Elzy Golden, 27, told how he "chases speeders across the state line all the time into Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It's legal. Sometimes I cross the state line in pursuit of a criminal. You can't help it around here. Officers from West Virginia and Pennsylvania chase law violators into Maryland.

"Sometimes they chase a suspect or speeder across two state lines before they catch 'em. We have a routine worked out so we don't wind up in court over the state-line issue."

None of the four Hancock policemen live in Hancock. Chief Riley Trumpower, 55, lives in Big Pool, Md., 10 miles to the east. Officer Howard Prevost, 40, doesn't even live in the same state. He lives in West Virginia--in Berkeley Springs.

Fire departments from the three states have agreements allowing them to cross state lines to fight fires in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"We fight almost as many fires in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as we do in Maryland," explained Hancock Fire Chief Jim Younker, 45. "In two minutes time around here we can be in three states."

Scores of families in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have a Maryland address. They pick up their mail at the Hancock Post Office because they live out in the country and it is much closer than the post offices in their home towns. Until recently, the Hancock Post Office had a rural route that extended 12 miles into Pennsylvania.

Nancy Hensley, 44, reporter-photographer for the weekly Hancock News, regularly covers stories in all three states.

"A lot of our circulation is in West Virginia and Pennsylvania because people live closer to Hancock than to Needmore and Warfordsburg in Pennsylvania or to Berkeley Springs in West Virginia," she noted.

Historic Area

This is a historic area. Many families in Maryland's narrow waist and nearby Pennsylvania and West Virginia trace their ancestors to the early 1700s when the tri-state area was first settled.

"Anyone who has lived here any length of time has relatives close by in all three states," said reporter Hensley.

A visitor center for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park is on Main Street in Hancock. The 184.5-mile-long historic canal parallels the Potomac and runs from Washington to Cumberland, Md.

On May 17, 1785, the Potomac Co. was created for the express purpose of planning, building and operating the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. George Washington was its first president and served in that capacity until he became President of the United States.

The important commercial waterway, in use until 1924 by mule-drawn canal boats, became a national historic park in 1971. The old mule towpath is now a popular trail used by hikers, cyclist and horseback riders.

Every day hundreds of Pennsylvanians and West Virginians drive to and from Maryland's narrow waist. They work in Hancock's three large factories, which employ more than 1,000 workers--the London Fog garment plant, Rayloc, a car-parts company, and Fleetwood Industries.

Many out-of-staters also work at several smaller businesses in Hancock or for the town government. Elected officials, however, must live within the town limits.

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