Relaxin' on the C&O Canal

What was once a center of commerce is now a mecca for leisure

What was once a center of commerce is now a mecca for leisure

September 28, 2007|By HARRY NOGLE

In this time of high gasoline prices, a day trip to a local historical park might be just the answer for family entertainment and recreation.

One of the C&O Canal National Historical Park visitor centers is located in Williamsport, just a short drive from anywhere in Washington County.

The 184-mile C&O park runs along the Potomac River from the mouth of Rock Creek in Georgetown to Cumberland. Originally, the C&O Canal was a lifeline for communities and businesses along the Potomac River as coal, lumber, grain and other agricultural products floated down the canal to market. Today, millions of visitors hike or bike along the canal each year to enjoy the scenic, cultural and recreational opportunities available.

"This is not just a museum for visitors to visit and examine," said Jessica Liptak, National Park Service ranger. "The canal is a place where individuals can walk or jog. Families can bicycle or push their children in strollers in the outdoors, without worrying about traffic."


A total of 74 lift locks increased the elevation of the canal only by 605 feet from Georgetown to Cumberland. The towpath, an even, hard-packed dirt trail ideal for biking, was originally built 12 feet wide as a path for the mules that pulled the boats. It now provides a nearly level byway for hikers and bicyclists to experience the beauty of the canal. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the towpath.

The canal's watered sections provide quiet waters for canoeists, boaters and anglers, while park rangers in period clothing take visitors back to the time when the canal was alive and well.

Horseback riding is permitted on the canal from Swains Lock (mile 16.6) to the Offutt Street crossing at Candoc (mile 181.8) in Cumberland. Riders may not exceed a slow trot, and horses are not permitted in the Paw Paw Tunnel.

Canal canoeing and boating are popular in watered levels or sections from Georgetown to Violetts Lock (about mile 22), but canoeists must portage around each lock. Above Violettes Lock only short sections are open to canoes: Big Pool, Little Pool and a 4-mile section from Town Creek to Oldtown.

Many sites are available for camping along the C&O Canal. Drive-in car camping sites are located at Antietam Creek, just south of Sharpsburg, at McCoy's Ferry, Fifteenmile Creek, Paw Paw Tunnel and Spring Gap. All these sites rent for $20 per night.

In addition, the park offers free hiker-biker campsites along the towpath every 5-7 miles.

All sites include a chemical toilet, picnic table and grill, as well as drinking water.

The first visitor center is located at the Georgetown section of the canal near Washington, D.C., where mule-drawn boat rides are available. Other places of interest include the Great Falls and the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, the Paw Paw Tunnel, the Hancock Visitor Center and Cumberland.

Visitors to the Williamsport Visitor Center, located at 205 W. Potomac St., will find a wealth of canal history in this "canal town." The center is housed in the old Cushwa Warehouse, built between 1790 and 1810. This building was used to store coal that was offloaded from canal boats, and loaded onto railroad cars. Today, the warehouse serves as a visitor center with exhibits and information on the canal. Rangers and volunteers provide information and historical interpretation. Films, videos and reading material are available. For information on the Williamsport Visitor Center, call 301-582-0813.

Other canal attractions still existing in the vicinity of the Cushwa Basin are the power station used to supply power for the first trolley line in Washington County and the Conococheague Aqueduct, the fifth of 11 masonry aqueducts along the canal.

In addition to Mother Nature, who would occasionally flood the river and destroy sections of the canal, railroads were another obstacle to the success of the canal. The speedy railroads could easily exceed the 4 mph pace of canal boats in transporting goods.

"Railroad engineers would torment the mules by blowing their whistles or clanging their bells to scare the mules," ranger Liptak said. "Even today, during a recent visit of the mules in Cumberland, the hiss of the steam from an operating locomotive caused one of the mules to tense up," she said.

Curious visitors may want to visit a railroad lift bridge near the Cushwa Basin. This unique structure was built in 1923. Ironically, the canal stopped operating the next year, and the bridge was only used once!

Nearby, a Bollman Bridge was built in 1879 by Wendel Bollman, a pioneer in engineering iron bridges, to extend Salisbury Street in Williamsport over the canal. This is one of the few Bollman bridges remaining in the United States.

Walking on the canal south of the Bollman Bridge, visitors can see an operating lock (Lock 44), located beside the lockhouse, which served as a home for the lockkeeper and his family.

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