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Winch house opens for day

December 13, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

DOWNSVILLE - For several years, the small wooden structure on the C&O Canal's Dam No. 4 has been closed to the public, according to Park Ranger Donna Swauger.

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Sunday, she opened it for the first of two planned days on which the public can see inside.

The original house held machinery used to lower a gate to stop water for canal repairs or flood protection. It was built over a stone stop lock with a long groove into which heavy boards were lowered from above.

The winch house, as it is known, held a winch that operated the stop gate, according to Swauger. Although there are several stop gates along the canal, there is only one winch house, she said.

Stop locks helped divert water back into the Potomac River if heavy flooding threatened the canal.

They also stopped the flow when the canal needed dredging or repairs, Swauger said.

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The original winch house was destroyed in a 1936 flood. The National Park Service rebuilt it from old photographs after acquiring the property in the 1970s, according to Swauger.

"This is the first it's been open in a number of years," she said. "Years ago it was a small nature center."

Displays of local flora and fauna still line the inside walls, such as a poster matching animals to their tracks. One poster showed the songbirds of C&O National Park and another identified non-native weeds.

Animal bones, shells and feathers found in the park sat on a table. Swauger, who frequently takes the items into schools for educational talks, identified red fox, doe and coyote skulls. She uses a cat skull to teach students about wildlife.

"That's one of my lessons for the kids: Don't come and dump your pets here. They won't survive," she said.

Curious visitors stopped by to get a look inside, where floorboards cover the stop gate's entrance. "I've come here a thousand times to fish and I didn't know this was here," said Mike Smith of Williamsport.

Other displays inside the house explained the history of the canal, a massive undertaking of manual labor, horsepower and hand tools. A poster showed workers plowing tree roots and building berms.

Dozens of contractors did these jobs along half-mile sections of the 184.5-mile canal. They built lift locks, flumes, waste weirs and stop locks. Construction began after President John Quincy Adams turned the first shovel July 4, 1828, and finished in 1850.

In its heyday, the canal carried hundreds of boats with cargoes of coal, flour, grain and lumber. But the westward expansion that fueled the canal's construction continued without it once railroads and highways took on traffic.

It was abandoned by 1924, according to the park. But its locks and other landmarks remain.

The winch house will be open again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Dec. 19. Depending on attendance, it may be open again afterward, Swauger said.

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