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In the summer of 1987, I moved to Washington and began working as a nanny for a family in Cleveland Park. A few days after I arrived, the father, John, packed me, his 5-year-old son James, and a beefy chocolate Lab into his Toyota Camry. As we pulled out of the driveway, John waxed dreamily that we were headed to a “beautiful retreat on the edge of the city,” a place he suggested visiting “as much as you can.” I peered out the windshield, waiting to catch sight of the urban paradise John was gushing about.
We wound through some nice Ward 3 streets, past MacArthur Boulevard, and ultimately into a parking lot astride the Clara Barton Parkway. We popped out of the car and crossed a pedestrian bridge onto a flat gravel trail alongside a small channel of slow-moving, smelly water. An active guy, John threw sticks for the dog and bounced happily along the path.
We had arrived at the towpath of the C&O Canal, but I was still looking for the beautiful retreat. I kept wondering if nirvana might be right around the bend, but there were no bends. I was anxious for a clearing, a meadow, a hillanything to break the boredom of the arrow-straight path we were on. Sure, I appreciated the trees that lined the canal, but I got the idea after a quarter-mile or so.
So, apparently, did James. The kid looked bored enough to be waiting out a particularly long church service. He picked up a twig here, a stone there, and watched the dog dart in and out of the trees. Mostly, though, he was curious about when we’d be turning back. The simple answer: not soon enough.
James Key and Anthony Dwyer were desperate for a break as well. They came of age in the British Isles in the 1820s, a time when good jobs were almost nonexistent and inflation was out of control. In October 1829, though, Key and Dwyer found a way out. An agent from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Co. approached them with a job offer that few at home could match: $12 in monthly wages for digging a giant, navigable ditch from Washington to the bustling Monongahela Valley in Ohio. By British standards, the pay was good, and the perks were downright irresistible: three rations of meat per day, bread and vegetables, and even some hooch to take the edge off a tough workday. Key and Dwyer promptly signed contracts and hopped on a ship headed for Georgetown.
They would later kick themselves for their naiveté. Working “on the line” of the C&O Canal made Key, Dwyer, and thousands of other imported laborers yearn for the tolerably miserable life in England’s mines and factories. Rations on the trans-Atlantic voyage and on the line were always inadequate and often inedible. The immigrants never got enough liquor to pad their misery, and the canal even tried to prohibit all alcohol consumption during the daytime.
If the imported laborers were appalled by their treatment at the hands of the canal company, they were simply unprepared for the Potomac Valley. By the time Key and Dwyer arrived for work on the canal, disease had felled hordes of other laborers who couldn’t adjust to what one canal historian calls “the unhealthy atmosphere” of the region. The sick fled their canal posts in search of medical attention.
No doubt horrified by their lot digging a 60-foot-wide ditch for a bunch of slave drivers, Key and Dwyer bolted shortly after starting work. But their contracts indentured them to the canal to repay the cost of transporting them to the United States, so the canal’s labor thugs rounded up Key and Dwyer and had them thrown into a District of Columbia jail. From behind bars, Key and Dwyer assured canal company execs that they would dutifully return to the canal to erase their debts.
They lied. After a second brush with the canalwith its filth, pestilence, and cash-strapped contractorsKey and Dwyer escaped, only to be apprehended again by canal authorities. No one knows whether they went back or notbut then, they just might have preferred jail to life on the canal.
Canal archives are flooded with stories like those of Key and Dwyerstories that document the centurylong folly of America’s earliest infrastructural disaster. From the moment it began collecting tolls in 1831 until its last gasp on the eve of the great flood of 1924, the canal recorded exactly three years of profitability, a record that makes the Greenway Toll sound like a gold mine. In most of its years of operation, the expense of staffing the canal and maintaining its clumsy 184.5 miles of locks, dams, culverts, and embankments dwarfed revenues from trade in coal, grain, and other commodities between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md., which is where the canal ended when they abandoned plans to dig all the way to Ohio.
Today, though, crude profit-loss terms no longer compute the canal’s utility. In 1971, the federal government created the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and placed it under the stewardship of the National Park Service, which inherited responsibility for preserving the park’s 1,800 historical structures and its viability as a recreational area. If head counts count for anything, the canal-as-park has been a smashing success: Each year, nearly 4 million tourists and neighbors flock to the canal for hiking, camping, bird watching, picnicking, biking, jogging, and so on.
A magazine article hanging at the canal’s headquarters expresses the conventional wisdom that the canal’s popularity as a park has washed away its legacy as a commercial debacle. “A 19th-century blunder is just fine today,” reads the article, which depicts a pair of canoers on the canal’s calm waters. Catchy though it may be, the promo can’t gloss over the sobering truth, which emerged after the two ruinous floods of 1996: The canal was a poorly managed boondoggle as a commercial waterway and is now a well-managed boondoggle as a national historical park.
Every week, park officials wrestle with the same headaches that made losers of their predecessors in the canal company: how to recover from the last disaster and fortify key structures against the next one. But since the national parks are saddled with a $5.6-billion maintenance deficit, taxpayer cash for canal fixups is drying up like the neglected canal bed. And even though park superintendent Douglas Faris raves about all the individuals and corporations who have contributed to the canal, private donations will never cover the park service’s mandate. There’s only one long-term solution: Give the canal back to its natural proprietor, the Potomac River.
The folks who gathered along Potomac Avenue NW on Sunday, Jan. 21, 1996, quickly learned why the canal and the river don’t get along. Below them, around Chain Bridge, roiled a brown expanse fueled by the suddenly melted remains of the legendary Blizzard of ’96. The flood seemed to be carrying everything that tried to get in its way: trees, rocks, and all sorts of debris.
On this day, the swath of real estate on the north side of the river where mules once towed canal barges was barely distinguishable from the jagged, bolder-strewn stretch of unnavigable river the canal was built to avoid. The old ditch was invisible.
Once the flood waters had receded, though, the damage to the man-made waterway came into plain view. “The C&O Canal is a wreck,” wrote Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in a Washington Post Op-Ed.
Just above Chain Bridge, the torrent tore off a 6-foot chunk of the towpath and berm, a fluvial indiscretion that would cost the park service $1 million. The flood’s ravages were even more severe upriver, where park service officials found a 100-foot-wide, 40-foot-deep gap in the towpath by the Old Angler’s Inn below Great Fallstack on a couple of million more. The $750,000 pedestrian bridge between the canal and Olmstead Island was also a casualty.
Disaster by disaster, the repair estimates climbed, cresting at about $20 million. Wary that Congress wouldn’t foot the entire repair bill, Babbitt requested private contributions by invoking the full ennui of the canal’s history: “On this same path, mules once towed canal boats loaded with coal, cement, flour, and barrels of whisky through the Piedmont farm country, past the hallowed ground of Antietam, along the Blue Ridge, to join the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown met his fate,” he wrote.
Babbitt’s appeal netted over $1 million in donations, which helped the park service and thousands of volunteers patch the ditch together. All but two miles of the canal towpath were reopened to the publicjust in time for Hurricane Fran to bring another devastating flood in September of the same year.
“We were working day and night all summer, and then we get Hurricane Fran in September,” says Faris.
The severity of 1996’s two floods made it the most destructive year in canal history, according to the park service. By year’s end, the floods had inflicted $55 million in damages. That’s 11 times the park’s annual operating budget and almost three times what Congress was willing to pony up.
The ’96 floodsdespite the park service’s attempts to play them upsurprised only the most clueless onlookers. Although the Potomac is a very average river that descends from nowhere in particular to nowhere special, it has distinguished itself in one key respect: It floods. And floods and floods.
Back when C&O officials began digging the ditch in 1828, they hadn’t seen the river flood in 18 years, so they built a waterway with virtually no fortifications against the Potomac. Big mistake.
As the park service itself professes, the Potomac floods have grown “steadily worse” ever since the canal’s completion in 1850, as measured by escalating repair costs. Two themes wash up in flood post-mortems over the years: the stupidity of placing a canal alongside the Potomac, and the canal’s never-ending dependence on taxpayer money to limp away from the river’s haymakers. The names and dates change, but the stories are remarkably similar:
•The 1852 flood was the most powerful up to its time, as the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light reported: “The damage must necessarily be very great, and it is feared the Canal may be seriously impaired by this freshet.”
•Things started getting desperate for the canal company after the 1887 flood, according to the Evening Star. “The rather gloomy report of President Baughman to the stockholders of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal at Annapolis yesterday shows the necessity of some action by the public authorities if the canal is to be maintained as a highway of commerce. The company has exhausted its resources and the spring will bring a demand for many expensive repairs.”
•Canal company treasurer Spencer Watkins started a time-honored tradition of declaring the canal finished after the monster 1889 flood: “I don’t see what the company can do. It will probably discuss the matter with the board of public works, but it can’t do any more. It certainly can’t fix the canal.”
•Watkins’ prediction finally panned out after the 1924 flood: “It is doubtful whether the historic Chesapeake and Ohio canal will ever again be operated,” wrote the Evening Star. It never was.
•By the flood of 1942, the canal was in the hands of the park service, and an anonymous official rued the damages: “We don’t know where we’ll get the money to make the repairs.” (Hint: the taxpayers.)
•In a plea for funds to repair some of the $60 million in damages following the 1972 flood, Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr. said, “The process of deterioration is quickly reaching the irreversible stage.”
•And finally, Babbitt, after the most recent floods: “At this rate, it could be that the ruins of the historic C&O will simply remain there as a symbol of how Congress has abandoned our National Park System.”
Park boosters argue that the canal’s survival through all the deluges attests to its resilience. And if resilience means shameless solicitation of public dollars for a hopeless boondoggle, they’re right.
On a lovely August morning, park service official Mark Myers is playing his harmonica for about 50 tourists on the Georgetown, a vintage 19th-century canal barge moving slowly on the canal toward Wisconsin Avenue NW. “How ’bout ‘Susanna’? Anyone know that one?” asks Myers before launching into the tune. After a few bars, the tourists are stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and singing along.
In between other ditties, like “Yankee Doodle” and “Oh, My Darling,” Myers needles the crowd with the skill of a seasoned entertainer. He spots a boy on board sporting inflatable orange life preservers on his arms, just in case the barge dumps him into the 6-foot-deep canal waters: “Do you think he knows something we don’t?”
When the short barge trip is concluded, kids and their parents crowd around Rodie and Katie, the mules that pull the Georgetown up and down the canal. The kids love the mules. “Come on, Bobby, we gotta get going,” says Bobby’s father, trying to coax Bobby down from one of the mules.
Selling C&O Canal nostalgia to tourists requires nothing short of a pro like Myers and a pair of cute, docile beasts. The canal, after all, is a glorified 19-century highway. And as with most highways, its history and structures are boring as hell.
The park derives what little historical cachet it has from George Washington. Having followed a trail near the Potomac into the Alleghenies on a military campaign in the 1750s, Washington later grew obsessed with linking the capital to the thriving West. For a few decades, he fantasized about the project in letters to Thomas Jefferson and other bigwigs.
After mopping up the British in the Revolutionary War, Washington founded the Potomac Co. in 1785, which built canal bypasses on both sides of the river around unnavigable stretches of the Potomac. Like its successorthe C&O Canal Co.the Potomac Co. wasted no time accumulating debt and begging for assistance from the government. It collapsed in 1822.
Historical displays at the Great Falls Tavern visitor’s center feature oversize photos of the canal’s great floods. They depict smashed canal barges, rushing torrents, and inundated communities and lock houses. The displays occupy the center’s prime exhibit space, and for good reason: Even fully operational, the canal wasn’t much to behold. Mules tugged barges along the towpath at the blistering rate of 4 miles per hour, slow enough to make every hemlock along the way look like a redwood. Canal operators loaded their boats with over 120 tons of coal, heavy enough to cripple the mules that were forced to haul it.
Occasionally, life on the canal did get exciting, but not in the way its boosters had hoped. In May 1833, two years after commerce had begun plying the canal, the company forced captain Alexander Givens to navigate his boat through a stretch “which is very Dangerous Eaven to Experienced Botesman.” In a letter requesting legal representation before the company’s board, Givens wrote, “…it was my Misfortune to Run uppon a Rock and Broke my boat all to pieces.”
Givens blamed the company for the accident and requested an exemption from canal tolls. After all, the accident claimed not only Givens’ boat but also “twelve Barrels of Flour…[that] cost me Twenty five Cents per barrel.” Not to mention what a modern courtroom would consider emotional distress: “[I] run a verry narrow Chance of my own life and too of my Negroes.”
But if the canal has become a tiresome place to twist off a Saturday, when it was a working proposition it was an even more miserable place. Barge captains often used their kids as deckhands, a practice denounced in a 1923 Labor Department report. Pubescent barge workers, the report said, missed a lot of school and suffered abuse fit for grownups: “45 children had fallen into the canal more or less frequently; 11 had been kicked by mules; 1 cut with an axe, and 1 dragged by a mule over a lock gate,” said the report. And recreational opportunities for canal kids were few: throwing coal at one another, watching intoxicated lock keepers fall into the drink, and swimminga popular pastime despite the ditch’s “pollution with manure and refuse,” according to the report.
Luckily for its boosters, though, the canal doesn’t have to rely on its B-league history to attract crowds. Just check out the scene by the Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur Boulevard on any fine weekend day. The region’s leisure class descends on the parking lot in Jeep Cherokees and Nissan Maximas and whips out its fanny packs and mountain bikes for a spin on the towpath. Three distinct constituencies turn out en masse: graying types out for a leisurely stroll, young families, and young fitness poseurs who can’t handle hills higher than 4 feet.
In their wanderings, the hikers and bikers whiz by the canal’s locks and over its culverts, waste weirs, and aqueducts. Few of them care about the structures’ historical importance or architectural integrity. They just want a ride or a walk that doesn’t include speeding BMWs.
Sometime in the early 1830s, J. and L. Cahoon secured a contract from the C&O Canal Co. to build Locks 28 and 29, which lie several miles northwest of Point of Rocks, Md. The Cahoon brothers, who were both masons, dutifully set out to slap the locks together but quickly ran into trouble: They couldn’t find a nearby quarry to procure granite for the locks’ walls. So the Cahoons hopped aboard the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and headed 45 miles east to Patapsco, where they found a generous supply of granite. They shipped it back to the lock siteson the already operating railroadat a cost of over $2,000.
The rail cargo fees put the Cahoons in the red, and they promptly wrote to the canal company requesting full compensation. After getting no response, they wrote back to the company with a fallback position: Give us $1,500 or “we must resort to other measures which will be unpleasant to us in the extreme.”
Shelling out scarce funds to reimburse the railroad no doubt horrified canal execs, who fancied themselves worthy competition for the railroad. Both enterprises broke ground on the same dayJuly 4, 1828and with the same objective. Their fates diverged quickly, though. The B&O was kicking the C&O’s ass up and down the Potomac Valley eight years before the ditch made it to Cumberland.
Railroad-canal rivalry notwithstanding, the Cahoons’ cost overruns help explain why the canal companyand now the park serviceran decades-long deficits and repeatedly sought government bailouts. Structures like Locks 28 and 29 cost a fortune to build and often just as much to maintain. Even before the canal was officially completed in October 1850, the company had secured $200,000 in bonds from the Virginia legislature to overhaul its many culverts, dams, and aqueducts.
Managing the canal’s unwieldy network has proved no easier for the park service. “Most historical parks have one, two, three historical structures,” says park superintendent Faris. “We have 1,800.”
Numerically speaking, the canal dominates the area’s various historical parks. According to a 1979 Interior Department internal memo, the canal boasts 46 percent of the protected historical structures in the national capital regiona staggering share for a park with about 2 percent of the region’s historical significance. The memo states, “It is difficult to balance the programming and budgetary needs of so large a preservation responsibility with the legitimate needs of the other parks…”
It hasn’t gotten any easier since then. These days, the park scrapes along on an annual $5-million budget, almost 90 percent of which pays salaries, according to park spokesman Gordon Gay. That leaves well under $1 million to fund the maintenance and restoration of the canal’s myriad antiquities. No wonder the place is going to hell.
Melissa Andrews is the canal’s premier IMBYite. She lives on a quiet street in Brookmont, Md., a shady enclave of modest homes just beyond the District line. Her brick house is compact and cute, but its location is what sold Andrews: The front door is just 100 yards or so from an access path to the canal. In her seven years as a Brookmont resident, Andrews claims she has visited the canal “just about every day.” “What would that be?” she muses. “Over 2,000 times?”
Between walks on the towpath, Andrews is waging a crusade against the park service, which she regularly harangues for neglecting canal repairs in her back yard. Andrews’ activism springs from a preliminary flood-recovery plan released by the park service in mid-March. The plan was mostly boilerplate stuff about the park’s history of flooding and its predicament in the aftermath of the ’96 disasters.
Buried in the report, though, was a recommendation that swamped Andrews and her fellow canal devotees in Brookmont and Glen Echo: “Pursue not rewatering some of the lower canal section between Widewater and inlet lock 5. Evaluate returning the canal prism in this section to more of a wetland.” In other words, leave Andrews’ precious recreational resource as it is: a dry, unsightly ditch. “It’s featureless,” says Andrews on a tour of a desiccated part of the canal a couple of miles from Brookmont.
The plan gave Andrews a cause, and the inevitable advocacy group wasn’t far behind. This past spring, she founded the C&O Canal Preservation Coalition, which she says serves about 12 civic associations from Maryland communities that border the canal. She and her allies aren’t about to let their canal go down the drain.
“The Park Service is betting the future of a significant portion of the canal on highly uncertain future funding, instead of using existing funds to ensure the entire canal’s preservation,” says coalition member Bill Endicott in a July 17 press release. While the coalition carefully crafts its rhetoric to justify its reputation as defender of the 184.5 miles of scenic treasure between Georgetown and Cumberland, Andrewsby her own admissionis out to save the portion of the canal that lies within a leisurely stroll of her Brookmont home.
The coalition’s platform is as simple as it is shallow: The park service dissed its members by funding only 11 percent of so-called high-priority flood repairs from near Brookmont to the Old Angler’s Inn. The 5-mile Georgetown section, by contrast, has secured funding for 97 percent of its most pressing repairs. Funding levels for the rest of the canal, by Andrews’ calculations, are just under 70 percent. “It seems as if the areas that get the most money and get the most repairs are the ones that cater to tourists,” says Andrews.
But Andrews is now attempting to write a corollary to that rule: Repair funds also go to those who complain the loudest. Over the summer, Andrews and coalition members lobbied park service officials and Rep. Connie Morella (D-Md.) to channel more of the $22 million in flood-repair funds to her 7.5-mile section of the canal. “We felt their position was right, and we supported them,” says William Miller, chief of staff for Morella. “And they’re going to get additional funding.”
Sure enough. According to park spokesman Gay, the park service will sink at least $1 million into re-watering the section that so concerns the coalition. The hassles required to complete the project are symptomatic of the insanely high-maintenance canal.
In order to keep water in the canal, the park service must close the breach caused by the January ’96 flood near Old Angler’s Inn. It won’t be a novel challenge: The same spot has succumbed twice before to the Potomac’s rage. After the 1936 flood, a concrete retaining wall was installed to prevent another breach; it snapped like a twig in January ’96. Instead of repeating that mistake, the engineers are planning a minidam over which flood waters will be able to flow when the pressure builds. Like most of the efforts to save the canal from its bigger aquatic brother, it will work until it doesn’t.
If the burden of closing the chronic Old Angler’s breach doesn’t convince the park service to bag the whole canal thing, perhaps the other element of the re-watering effort will. Flood waters dumped loads of silt into the ditch between Old Angler’s Inn and Lock 5. In some spots, the silt rises almost to towpath level. And removing the silt is slightly more complicated than tossing it into the woods with a backhoe. The silt must be loaded into a truck, unloaded at an intermediate “staging area” to dry out, and then transferred to a landfill. According to park superintendent Faris, proper silt disposal costs between $25 and $50 per cubic yard, and the Old Angler’s section is littered with up to 40,000 cubic yards of silt. All that shoveling could add up to another $2 million to re-dig a few miles of ditch that should have been abandoned decades ago.
On his fishing perch by the canal berm just south of Cumberland at 7:30 on a brisk September morning, Jim Dropko isn’t expecting company. So he looks a bit surprised when I pull up on my bike and ask him what kinds of fish he catches in the canal. “Um, some bass, some small turtles, and carp,” says the Cumberland resident, adding that he fishes the canal every day. “I’ve found the fishing in the canal better than the Potomac,” says Dropko, as he slowly reels in his line from a pool of black, stagnant water that has formed in the canal bed.
Dressed in a camouflage headband, a blue pullover, and jeans, Dropko continues, “The state was supposed to stock an area down the way; I think it’s about 10 or 11 miles away, by Mile Marker 169. How long do you think it would take me
to ride there?”
We both regard his bike, a ’70s-vintage clunker with chrome fenders, chain guard, and all. Dropko knows he doesn’t need an upscale hybrid with indexed shifting to negotiate a flat gravel path. “Probably an hour, hour and a half,” I respond. “Do you need to fish to get by?” I ask as I mount my bike.
“No,” says Dropko. “I just need something to do.”
Dropko’s stomping grounds showcase the C&O Canal at its best. Unlike many other stretches of the ditch, the Cumberland area has gone relatively unpunished by the frequent Potomac floods, so the park service hasn’t plowed many taxpayer dollars into a losing battle with Mother Nature. Nor have the authorities undertaken the costly folly of keeping the canal a functional waterwaycomplete with working locks, culverts, etc.that bankrupted the canal company. (That may change, however, as Faris plans to re-water a couple of miles of the canal near Cumberland.) The towpath is in decent shape, and the canal prism is sliding back into the hands of the surrounding woodland.
Although the western reaches of the canal are not a sinkhole for public money, they are incredibly monotonous. Take, for example, the slice of canal real estate that sits astride Mile Marker 117, just beyond Fort Frederick State Park. The whir of traffic on I-70, just a stone’s throw to the north, vies with the buzz of cicadas and the chirping of birds. The canal prism is a jumble of twigs, fallen trees, and leaves. To the south lie a meadow and a grove of hardwood trees.
It’s actually a nice little scene, but it has a knack of reappearing every time you look up. “You can go two miles and see the exact same spot,” says Chris Beach, manager of City Bikes in Adams Morgan. “It’s boring as hell.”
As I settle the charges for my rented bike, Beach continues his rant: “At least you didn’t have to hike it. It’s bad enough on a bike.”
To its credit, the ditch rewards those patient enough to endure miles of relentlessly flat and featureless trail with impressive views of the Potomac River and the Allegheny Mountainswhich any trail guidebook or canal booster will describe in fawning detail. The guidebooks, however, won’t prepare you too well for one of the canal’s most enduring features: In many sections, it stinks to high heaven.
Even below Georgetown, where the canal is at its cuddliest, the smell can be overwhelming. The stench escapes from gaps in a nearby sewer line and ends up bouncing around the alveoli of unsuspecting Spandex-clad recreaters. “I’ve been down there a couple of days that it’s been so bad that it permeated your clothing,” says Faris. “We had to close one of the tunnels because of raw sewage coming onto park land.”
The stench has some rank forebears, too. On Sept. 5, 1832, H. Huntt, president of the Washington Board of Health, ordered that “all stagnant water, in the Canal or on the borders of the Canal from Rock Creek to its junction with the Washington City Canal, shall be drained, or otherwise corrected without delay.”
Huntt would go berserk if he saw the 1997 version of the canal. In some spots, the stagnant canal prism resembles a putting green, overgrown as it is with algae. “Is that all mucous in there?” asks a boy, eyeing the algae infestation around Old Angler’s Inn.
The curious lad could always make his way up to the Cushwa basin in Williamsport, Md., where the green sludge sidles right up to the pedestrian entrance. In the midday sun it bubbles up and burps, emitting a foulness that’s been brewing since the ditch was dug.
“Look there, South Bend, In.,” says John Slayman, flipping through the guest book at the C&O Canal Museum in Williamsport on Sunday, Aug. 24. Today is the town’s annual “C&O Canal Days” festival, and Slayman, Williamsport’s mayor, is marveling at the event’s geographic pull. “Stephens City, Va.! Westminster, Md.! Baltimore!” he screams to a couple of friends on the museum’s ground floor. “Last year, we had two from California.”
Slayman proffers the guest book as evidence that public interest in the ditch grows every year. “This is one of the biggest days we’ve ever had,” he says.
It shows. The festival grounds swarm with hordes of visitors who wade through a gantlet of concessionaires pushing every type of carved wooden “Welcome” sign ever conceived: welcome stakes, welcome boxes, welcome posts, welcome door ornaments, welcome lawn kitsch, and the always-in-demand welcome light-post accessories.
For some reason, though, the crowd doesn’t feel particularly welcome at the canal exhibits, which are located just down the hill at the Williamsport canal grounds. In front of an audience of threea middle-aged couple and a reportersinger Kate Evans plays old canal folk tunes. Most of her repertoire, she notes, originates from upstate New York’s Erie Canala real canal.
The Erie was rising and the gin was getting low, and I scarcely think we’ll get a drink ’til we get to Buffalo, croons Evans.
Alongside Evans, a blacksmith heats and pounds a piece of metal; no one watches. Inside the Williamsport visitors center, a handful of tourists sits before a video screen watching the late Charles Kuralt wax nostalgic about the canal’s wonders.
The public’s indifference toward the canal’s heritage accounts for the plight of the C&O Canal Association, which is struggling to raise funds for restoration projects. The association consists of about 1,300 true believersfolks who actually care about the entire park, not just the segment near their homes. “Our association tries to look at it as one unified canal,” says former association president Carl Linden.
That’s why the group is trying so hard to save the Monocacy Aqueduct, a seven-arch architectural gem that carries the canal over the Monocacy River. Unlike the popular sections near Georgetown, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland, the aqueduct is not heavily traveled and lacks a local constituency. But while Andrews may want her re-watering project and tourists may want to ride in the barges, there are few projects of greater urgency than the aqueduct. “If we lose the Monocacy Aqueduct, the canal will be split in two,” says Linden, referring to a possible east-west break in the canal.
An association brochure claims that such a calamity is as imminent as the next flood. “Substantial piles of debris were thrown against the aqueduct by the raging waters of the January 1996 flood, further threatening the stability of the structure,” reads the brochure. And that wasn’t even as severe as the 1972 flood, which washed away half of the capstones and a wrought-iron railing. Today, the structure bears all the scars of its stand against the Potomac: The grout between stones has been washed away, and there’s a longitudinal crack on one side. Divers from the Bureau of Land Reclamation found that river waters have sheared away two feet of the 10-foot-wide stone bases.
Plugging the cracks, according to engineering estimates, could cost up to $30 million$8 million more than the post-1996 flood-recovery funds for the entire canal. Thanks to the park service’s poverty and the me-firsters further down river, taxpayer funds won’t fill the gap. Says Morella staffer William Miller, “If we go back to the committee and ask for more funds, they’re going to say, ‘Don’t ask for more money for this ridiculous canal that never should have been built in the first place.’”
Private funds might secure a stone or twoat best. At the height of save-the-canal hysteria after the ’96 floods, the park service scraped together only $1.1 million in donations from corporations and individuals. In other words, the association stands a better chance of reviving the coal trade than fixing the Monocacy Aqueduct. To date, it has collected $50,000 for the project.
Perhaps a new look at its fund-raising techniques would help. At the Williamsport canal festival, the association set up a table to peddle $20 T-shirts for the aqueduct fund. The shirts are rugged and beautifully designed, with a graphic rendering of the aqueduct on the front and a multicolored map of the canal on the back. By the end of the two-day event, the association had sold just five shirtssix, counting the one I bought.
The decaying aqueduct is a hulking monument to the canal’s inviability and its gradual attrition. The 1972 flood inflicted up to $50 million in damages on the canal; the park service got around $6 million to clean it up. The 1985 flood brought the same relative shortfall: $10 million in damages, $2 million in repair funds. Now the park service is attempting to patch up $55 million in damages with just $22 million. Each time, the repair budget disappears into towpath breaches and collapsed walls. Routine maintenance on the aqueduct and scores of other structures never happens. The river will eventually win, sweeping millions more in taxpayer dollars with it when it does. Whether by plan or default, the 166-year-old debacle will return to wilderness, as it should.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early September, a young woman stands by the Williamsport canal entrance, tying her running shoes.
“Are you going out running?” asks a local redneck with a Coors Lite in one hand and a fishing pole in the other.
“Yeah,” responds the woman.
“How far can you go on this thing?” the man persists.
“Well, the canal goes all the way to Cumberland,” responds the woman.
“Oh, you mean this is some kinda canal or something?” asks the man. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I didn’t know it was a canal.”
“Yeah, it’s the C&O Canal,” responds the woman.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” says the man.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.