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Elements eat away at towpath

June 27, 1998|By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

SHARPSBURG - Biking the C&O Canal with his Boy Scout troop six years ago, Norman Mausolf saw the towpath disappear into patches of overgrown brush near McMahon's Mill. Signs warned that the trail was impassable.

Mausolf and his troops opted to try it anyway, and "walked further and further into disaster," he said.

As the band continued down the poison-ivy laden river bank, two bikes fell into the river. They had only gone a half mile before a third bike fell - this one with its rider, who landed on his back on a flat rock.

"He said, 'Mr. Mausolf, I can't move,'" the Cheverly, Md., scoutmaster recalled. The injured scout recovered in a few days, but Mausolf now religiously follows the detour route from McMahon's Mill to Dam Number Four.

Worried about visitors' safety and the integrity of the 184.5-mile long national historical park, one C&O Canal commissioner has made repairing the damaged towpath between McMahon's Mill and Dam Four a priority.

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Washington County resident Edward K. Miller has lobbied the other 18 commissioners, the park superintendent and the County Commissioners for years in hopes of repairing the historic site.

"The theme of it is continuity," he said. "Everybody expects continuity from Cumberland to Georgetown."

From his canoe on the Potomac, Miller surveyed the damage for the first time in two years on Thursday. Heading upriver from Dam Number Four, he looked at a crumbling stone wall that once protected the towpath from water damage until it succumbed itself.

The towpath itself, built on solid Conococheague limestone, still remains at that point although it is covered with grass and brush. Farther upriver, where the path had been built on dirt, it has washed out completely.

That stretch of the towpath, known as "Big Slackwater" always has been susceptible to damage, according to C&O Canal Superintendent Doug Faris. There, the canal briefly joins with the Potomac River, which causes more erosion damage to the towpath than the water in the narrow canal.

But Miller remains adamant that, except in places where the water has destroyed the bank right up to solid rock cliffs, much of the path could easily be repaired.

"I'm amazed they all told me that this was impassable," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of this is passable right now."

And the detour worries the longtime C&O Canal commissioner. The nearly five-mile bypass takes travelers along narrow, winding roads with blind hills and curves, but no shoulders in many places. He said drivers often speed on those roads, possibly putting hikers and bikers at risk.

"Can you imagine riding bicycles with a Boy Scout troop down here, with cars coming around the corner," he asked, shaking his head. "Dangerous."

Said C&O Canal Superintendent Doug Faris: "It's not as safe as we would like."

Faris said $100,000 already is earmarked to repair or replace the damaged section, but park administrators are still deciding whether to rebuild the towpath or construct a new trail on the hill behind the original path. Either option will likely cost at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Faris hopes to have a course of action chosen by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, that section of the trail remains empty, as travelers work their way around the detour. "Such a pretty ride," said Craig Gralley of Great Falls, Va., as he, his father and his brother rode their bikes. "It's a shame."

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