Big Pool community built on transportation

July 11, 2005|by ADAM BEHSUDI


Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a summer series examining the histories of local communities in Washington County. Next week: Cascade.

Helen "Dolly" Weaver remembers the day in 1923 when the C&O Canal closed.

Her father, a boat driver, had his mules hooked up, ready to take his barge to Cumberland, Md. Their neighbor, one of the few who had a telephone at the time, told him the bad news just as he was about to depart.

"It was hard on people ... we were a family and that was our living," said Weaver, 89, a lifelong resident of the Big Pool area.


After that, her father's mule team, accustomed to pulling boats from Georgetown to Cumberland, hauled ties for the tracks of the Western Maryland Railroad, the very thing that rendered the canal obsolete.

Weaver remembers when Big Pool had its own school, two churches, two stores and even a hotel.

Things are a little more quiet these days.

The community is small. The one street, Homestead Drive, dead-ends after about 100 yards. And although there is a Big Pool exit off Interstate 70, it is easy to pass the small collection of houses that form the community.

The post office, often referred to as the "little dollhouse," could easily be mistaken for a large toolshed.

Inside, acting postmaster Vicki Davis puts mail in the 36 post office boxes and prepares mail for delivery on a 36-mile route. She said mail is delivered to about 35 homes in Big Pool.

"We got everything a big post office has," Davis said.

The post office is too small to process passports, she said.

The community's namesake, the Big Pool, was formed during the construction of the canal in the first half of the 19th century. A low-lying area near the canal was flooded during its construction. This newly formed pond, or pool, served as a recreational area. Fishing, ice skating and swimming were some of the activities that took place on the 100-acre body of water.

Today, the pool is hidden by thick forest, no longer used by the community as a place of recreation.

Bustling canal

Martin Gallery, a C&O Canal National Historical Park ranger, said three or four barge captains or boat drivers lived in Big Pool. He said the pool had docks, a dry dock for barge repairs and served as a turnaround point for barge traffic on the canal.

"That was a pretty isolated area, per se, before they came through there," said Gallery about the construction of the canal.

With the construction of the railroad, canal traffic dwindled, Gallery said, and barge captains were replaced by railroad men.

Betsy Mellott, 57, has been a resident of Big Pool for 51 years. She said she remembers the days the train stopped in town. Three generations of her family worked on the railroad as track foremen and conductors. She said what was once a tie yard is now a parking lot for patrons of a bike trail.

Her grandfather, Charles Hofe, made sure the track was in good condition, checking the rails for heat damage and missing ties. Her father, Clyde Hofe, worked as a conductor and signalman.

The Western Maryland Railway - it was renamed in 1909 - was shut down in the 1970s, making way for a larger rail system operated by CSX Transportation Inc.

An area landmark that pre-dates both the canal and the railroad is Fort Frederick. Built in 1756, the fort served as a garrison during the French and Indian War and an important supply outpost as people moved west.

Big Pool, once an outpost on the frontier and a stop along two major lines of commerce, is at the crossroads of three historic recreational areas: Fort Frederick State Park, the Western Maryland Rail Trail and the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

The days when Weaver's brother could cast a fishing line into a canal from the front of their house have passed. Rather than the plodding of mules straining to pull heavy barges, one can find bicyclists speeding down the towpath.

At the Big Pool post office, Davis said she looks forward to coming to work every day even though her workspace is a little confining.

"It does get kind of cramped," she admitted.

But after working there only seven months, she said she has gotten attached to the community.

"I haven't been cussed at or yelled at one single day I've been here," she said.

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