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Group tours area of towpath needing restoration

August 16, 2006

WILLIAMSPORT - More than 30 officials, National Park Service workers and C&O Canal volunteers toured a stretch of the towpath south of Williamsport, which has been closed for several years.

"To complete a journey on this historic towpath, hikers and bikers take a detour, which includes traveling on Dam No. 4 Road and other local roads, and then connecting back to the park," said C&O Canal National Historic Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt.

Brandt was joined Saturday by several elected officials and by volunteers interested in helping restore the park.

"This is a safety concern, and we want to move towards eliminating a four-mile detour on narrow roads," said the Rev. Tom Perry. Perry helped organize the event, along with volunteers with the C&O Canal Association.

Several pontoon boats joined other watercraft in a flotilla that gave officials a close-up view of the washed-out stretch of the towpath.

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Since having to be closed off a decade ago, the National Park Service has been unable to complete repairs to reopen the Big Slackwater section. The C&O Canal's Restoration Committee wanted to create awareness for the situation, and to open a dialogue with officials who might be able to look for reconstruction opportunities.

The 184.5-mile national park runs from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C., and is headquartered in Washington County.

Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tom Riford said, "More than 40 percent of the canal passes through our county, and it's important for both tourism and safety to work toward reopening this closed section."

Flooding in 1972 punished the towpath upstream of Dam 4, and another storm in 1996 wrecked the Big Slackwater area further.

Some estimates are as high as $16 million to engineer and provide reconstruction to the damaged section of the park.

The restoration committee is hopeful that a public-private partnership will help restore the towpath to its original historic condition.

Perry pointed out during a pre-tour discussion, "This detour, which includes Dam 4 Road to Dellinger Road to Avis Mill Road, is dangerous for bikers and hikers alike, the road is narrow and hilly, and there are no shoulders in most sections."

Perry has said that safety upgrades to the detour would not be needed if the towpath was repaired.

"Any successful park has a good land base, a solid inventory of assets for visitors to enjoy," Riford said. "A successful park builds on a dedicated constituency, with community support critical to maintain and improve park assets. This allows more people to learn about and love a park's beauty. With the C&O Canal, fixing the washed-out section and restoring the park to its original beauty will help create an even greater constituency to protect, preserve and restore the park's land. People who experience and enjoy our parks learn to value the idea of preserving natural and cultural heritage."

Riford pointed out the park's importance to the local economy. According to park statistics, there were 700,000 users of the Washington County section of the park in 2005, and a local economic impact of nearly $2 million.

"With this section of the towpath restored, more visitors will be able to safely enjoy this truly unique park. This project is of high importance for tourism, and for the safety of its users," Riford said.

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