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Big Slackwater area: Why we're restoring it

June 11, 2007|by Kevin Brandt

Recently, the Western Maryland General Assembly delegation members demonstrated their support for the C&O Canal National Historical Park and for the communities along the park when they unanimously - and successfully - supported a $100,000 bond bill request to jump-start the repairs to the Big Slackwater area of the towpath.

State Sen. Don Munson, who led the charge by introducing the bill, and all the members of the Western Maryland delegation who unanimously supported it, deserve our appreciation for recognizing both the historical and economic importance of this project.

It is also important to report that the C&O Canal Association, the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Washington County recently joined forces to win a matching Challenge Cost Share Grant totaling $60,000 from the National Park Service to further spur on this project.

Together the $100,000 approved by the Maryland legislature and the $60,000 Challenge Cost Share grant will form an important first step in preparing preliminary plans, specifications and a reliable construction estimate for this important repair project.

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To some it may seem odd that local and state governments are funding what some may see as a federal enterprise. It is only odd for those who don't recall that the original construction of the C&O Canal was funded not only by the federal government but by the states of Maryland and Virginia and by private investors. Now, as then, we all can find mutual benefit in the canal.

The Big Slackwater section of the canal is an area where the "slackwater" behind Dam No. 4 was used in lieu of a separate canal and a narrow towpath was constructed atop a stone wall directly adjacent to the river.

Over the years, worn down by the floods of 1972, 1985 and 1996, the stone wall supporting the towpath gradually gave way. It is now the only place along the entire 184-mile length that cannot be traversed. Now, instead of a nearly 3-mile trip along the historic towpath, park visitors are directed along a 6-mile long detour of narrow county roads without shoulders and proper sight distances.

It is no wonder that in the last five years at least 30 people have been injured, in spite of our cooperative work with Washington County to erect signs and caution both drivers and pedestrians.

I'm certain that the funds recently approved will lead us toward a cost-effective and sustainable solution that will withstand the Potomac's wild floods while at the same time respecting the historic character of the canal towpath.

Preservation of the canal and towpath are important because they are a part of our American heritage. For many of the citizens along the canal, including many in Washington County, that national heritage is their personal heritage, too.

For the past three years, since I was appointed superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, I have been reaching out to help towns and communities along the canal reconnect with their canal heritage.

In the coming months, you will be hearing how the National Park Service is seeking to work cooperatively in Hancock and Williamsport to restore not just the historic features of the canal, but the relationship of mutual support and benefit that historically came with the canal in the 19th Century.

Today the C&O Canal National Historical Park is the largest and most visited national park in Maryland with more than 3.1 million visits.

It is in the top 20 of all national parks in the country, with visitation similar to Yosemite and Olympic national parks and greater than Yellowstone or Everglades national parks.

The support of the members of the Western Maryland legislative delegation is exemplary, and in addition to giving them my thanks, I'm rolling up my sleeves and redoubling my efforts to help make this project and all we do along the canal reflective of the best of America, so that we all can enjoy our canal heritage and history.

Kevin Brandt
Superintendent,
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

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