HSP HISTORY Blog
Interesting Frederick, Maryland tidbits and musings .
Growth Rings and Cunningham Falls
This past Saturday, my youngest sons and I made a pilgrimage to Cunningham Falls State Park for the annual Maple Syrup Demonstration. This was the 46th edition of the popular event which is held in, and around, the Houck Lake Area of the park. For my youngest son Eddie and I, it’s been an annual rite of Spring as this was our 9th consecutive visit (he’s been going since age 1). In recent years, we have had the opportunity to share this tradition with my stepsons (Eddie’s stepbrothers). One of which, Vinnie made the sojourn this year.
The “Maple Syrup” event is always a great Frederick County experience, and you never know what the March weather will hold be it lamb, lion or something in between. An ode to maple syrup in a great natural, park setting seems to attract plenty of folks each year (and from out of the Frederick area as well): south central Pennsylvania, the panhandle of West Virginia, Washington, Carroll and Montgomery counties (Maryland), DC and Northern Virginia.
How can things be bad when you can start off your visit with a pancake breakfast—a perfect sampling experience for Maryland-made maple syrup. That’s right Vermont….so back off!
The festival occurs over two weekends in mid -March and features “maple syrup boiling” demonstrations and family entertainment and crafts. For us, and many others, the trip is always capped with a short hike up to the namesake Cunningham Falls. To both young and old, this is quite an accomplishment, especially in respect to counteracting the effects that pancakes and syrup have on the human body.
The famed Cunningham Falls has intrigued me more and more each year, and not for the geologic reasons you would think. Cunningham Falls is not your typical waterfall like the legendary Niagara, Great Falls down the Potomac towards DC or Muddy Creek Falls out in Garrett County. Instead, ours is a cascading waterfall, and not just any cascading waterfall—it’s the largest cascade in the state.
The other day, we walked to “the Falls” amidst a light snow—pretty amazing, since my boys had baseball practice just a few days prior with the temperature hovering in the 70’s. We had our customary picture taken for archival and “FaceBook” purposes.
As we started making our way back off the boardwalk observation area, I heard another Dad proudly telling his family about the origin of the the Falls and its mysterious name. He said: “This used to be called McAfee Falls after the original owners of the land. Then the government took it away from them, and renamed it “Cunningham Falls.”
I just smiled walked by, not particularly in the mood to share a history lecture with this gentleman as he surely deserved a bit more of “rest of the story.” I had stumbled over a bit more, but not all, of the Cunningham Falls “name game” a few years back when I was researching and compiling a documentary on nearby Thurmont, entitled “Almost Blue Mountain City.” The story actually goes back to colonial times and the first Europeans in the area. Now thousands of years of native habitation likely included several other monikers for this geologic water form that we will never un-earth.
In the mid 1700’s, German settlers were winding their way down into the Maryland colony from Pennsylvania via the aptly named German Monocacy Road. Some stayed and settled here, while others continued in a southwesterly fashion, heading into the Shenandoah Valley heading south.
The romantic story of the immediate area says that the Weller family camped at Cold Spring because of a sick child. The child died, but the family decided to stay, making them the first European settlers of the area in 1751. Again, I’d like to insert the word “story” here because it is not the definitive way things happened, but that’s a blog for another day.
What is certain is that the “Great Road” west of (what would one day become) Thurmont crossed over, and through, Catoctin Mountain. Today this is Maryland route 77, also known as Foxville Road. Amidst the beautiful scenic views of trees, streams, rocks and “the cascading falls,” the sometimes treacherous and “zig-zagging” road is much improved compared to its rustic beginnings.
All this is relative because this road, at the time, certainly made Colonial era travel possible over the large landform of Catoctin Mountain. Travelers, pioneers, businessmen and farmers used this transportation route regularly, and at least one person used it “religiously.” This was Graceham Moravian Church minister Samuel Reinke (1791-1875).
Reverend (and later Bishop) Reinke served the Graceham congregation from 1827-1835. During this time, the cascading waterform was the key “tourism highlight of the area.” It certainly was not called Cunningham Falls back then, rather it was known as Hermann’s (or Herman’s Falls) by the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. We know this based on a watercolor Reinke painted, dated 1828.
Like me, Rev. Reinke likely brought his own young sons here to the falls as well. Ironically, his oldest was named Edwin just like mine, but I’m guessing the nickname “Eddie” wasn’t in vogue back then. Instead of a Vinnie, he had other sons named Amadeus and Clement. All three offspring would follow in their father’s life work as ministers, with Rev. Amadeus A. Reinke serving at Graceham’s faith leader from 1849-1854.
The Hermann Family (anglicized to Harman) originally settled in the area in the 1770’s and owned the cascading waterfall depicted by Reinke in a watercolor painted in 1822. Original settler Marcus Hermann, Jr. was a descendant of Augustine Hermann, an early Maryland mapmaker and owner of Bohemia Manor in Cecil County. Marcus Hermann had purchased land from Leonard Moser, a 30-acre tract of property called “Nolin” or “Knoll-in” Mountain. Sometimes this has been referred to as Noland’s Mountain as well.
Regardless, the Hermanns would also own the “Cold Spring” property to the east, and this gave birth to the origin of the name “Harman’s Gap.” Marcus’ children would eventually intermarry into the McAfee family by the late 1800’s and the falls would become known more commonly by another name, McAfee Falls. However, the McAfee family is said to have called the cascade ”Hunting Creek Falls.”
The federal government in the 1930’s laid claim to much of the mountain land including that of the McAfees. After years of making charcoal (to fuel nearby iron furnaces), mountain farming, and harvesting of trees for timber, land was purchased by the federal government to be transformed into a productive recreation area, aimed at bringing land back to its original condition while providing meaningful employment for people during the Great Depression.
Beginning in 1935, the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area went under construction by both the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The northern portion of the park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1936, and renamed and reorganized in 1954. The 5,000 acres south of MD77 were transferred to Maryland, becoming Cunningham Falls State Park.
And this is where I continue to research and remain stuck. Supposedly, it was at this time in the 1950’s that the name of Cunningham Falls came about. However, I found an early 20th century postcard that refers to Cunningham’s Falls, but dates to 1908. In any case, I still have not been able to find the “Cunningham” namesake but have heard several possible sources. Some talk of an influential bureaucrat named Cunningham, but no first name or affiliation. Many sources says that Cunningham Falls was named for a photographer, from either Baltimore or nearby Pen Mar Park, who frequently took great pleasure in photographing the falls.
Yet, other leads I have been given over time point to a Judge B.A. Cunningham from Frederick, and a Dr. Cunningham from Hagerstown. I give up, and simply like the monikers of Hemann’s Falls or McAfee Falls because we at least know who they were!
We may never know the true namesake of Cunningham Falls, but are truly fortunate to have such natural beauty and recreation opportunity here in Frederick County. My boys, however, at this stage of their lives, are more grateful for pancakes and syrup. Of course, I realized this as both Eddie and Vinnie dozed off in the back seat while I was telling them the confusing namesake story of the falls on the way back home after our visit.
3/23/2016 06:22:47 pm
Fascinating! Love our local history! Thanks for making this area even more special!
9/28/2018 11:28:19 pm
What a lovely and truly heartwarming post about appreciation of the beauty of nature! It is true that back when we were little kids, we used to be thankful about the little things like pancakes and syrup, as you have mentioned. But as grow up, we realize that the best things in life are those that we have not appreciated before. Those things that we have overlooked and have taken for granted. Because as we grow older, we realize that the things that genuinely makes us happy are those things that make other people happy, too. We develop this principle that we become happy when other people are happy. In short, we learn to be selfless.
Sandi Reed Burns
3/25/2016 05:00:58 pm
Thank you for sharing all your research with us, on Hemann's /McAfee Falls, aka Cunningham Falls.
4/7/2016 08:25:30 am
I am a descendant of the families who owned what is now Cunningham Falls. According to family history, Cunningham was the name of a "drifter" who was renting a room/shack from our relative one winter, He was known to come and go from Thurmont and maybe liked liquor a little too much. He had disappeared one night and come spring they discovered his body under a rock. They figured he (maybe drunk) slipped and fell off the road and became wedged under the rock freezing to death. Since then our family has always referred to that spot on the winding road as "Cunningham's Fall" My dad still to this day points out the rock when we pass, of course its not as visible now that the "new road" is there (Rt. 77). When the government took control of the land from my ancestors they mixed up the name of the Falls, and where poor Cunningham met his demise.
Lisa (Ward) George
3/3/2018 07:00:23 pm
My grandmother was a Heaston and Her mother my great grandmother was a McAfee prior to becoming a Heaston. I'm tracing my family history and I know this was a part of the family. I guess this makes us related. If there is anything you can e-mail me regarding the McAfee family and McAfee Falls ect... I would greatly appreciate it. I want my grown children to know the family history as well. Hope to hear back soon.
3/20/2019 08:16:05 pm
Very interesting article! Reuben McAfee was my great great grandfather! Love reading history on my family day
1/1/2022 04:56:25 pm
My dad was Issac m cafee's son Issac was rubuen brother
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