Canal may be stimulus with staying power

May 03, 2009

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Fort Frederick's history as a fort was relatively brief; it spent many more years as a walled farm, operated by an enterprising black man named Nathan Williams, who bought freedom for himself and his wife, and then purchased the fort in 1860 for $7,000.

Williams planted fruit trees and vegetables within the stone walls, which is one way to keep the deer at bay. During the Civil War, he sold produce to Union soldiers, as well as to Confederates garrisoned across the Potomac River. Recognizing the paradox, he explained that he was actually gathering intelligence for the North.

Today, there are few tangible signs of the Great Depression in Washington County. Fort Frederick is one of them, and another is Washington Monument atop South Mountain near Boonsboro.


In the 1920s, both stone structures were crumbling and in danger of disappearing altogether. The fort was suffering from neglect. Washington Monument's demise had some help from an angry parent who discovered the tribute to the first president had evolved into a clandestine smooching spot for teens.

During the Civil War, Union tents surrounded Fort Frederick, but in the 1930s another curious tent city popped up outside the walls. These were the quarters of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era work program designed to battle 25 percent unemployment.

At its peak, the CCC employed a half-million young men, 70 percent of whom were dressed in rags and had not had enough to eat when they enrolled. As an economic stimulus plan, the CCC at the very least kept people clothed and fed.

But there were some profitable side effects as well. Crime among the CCC demographic dropped by more than 50 percent. And the camps bolstered an idea that dated back to the mid-1800s, but was still a work in progress in the early 20th century: conservation.

German biologist Ernst Haeckel minted the word "ecology" in 1866, at a time when the deforestation debate was much like today's arguments over climate change. Men including U.S. Rep. George Perkins Marsh and surveyor Verplanck Colvin suggested that with the mass destruction of forests, and the sponge-like forest floors, land would dry to dust.

Their notions were not popular among the timber industries, but commerce that depended on water (notably canal and shipping companies) began to pay attention. So did the public, but for different reasons, based not on science, but art.

The wild forests and streams (which as late as 1850 were publicly thought of as "terrifying" places) became popular subjects for paintings and books and, through these vehicles, people became enamored with the outdoors - the automobile allowed them to experience nature first hand, not just through magazine articles and pretty prints.

On the night of July 22, 1921, two "automobile trucks" loaded with camping gear were secreted away in a Hagerstown garage. They were awaiting the arrival of three captains of industry, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, who planned a multi-week journey into the wilds of Western Maryland. While camped on Licking Creek near Hancock, they asked President Warren Harding to join them, which he did.

At breakfast in the warm summer air, two cooks tended the fire, while Henry Ford poured the pancake batter.

By the 1930s, four things were happening: The American public had awakened to the beauty of nature; scientists had established the necessity for conservation; industry was taking note of these changes; and an economic catastrophe swept the nation. Hence the CCC. Hence Fort Frederick.

Today, we have the same four elements, and it's notable that a few miles downstream from Fort Frederick, the C&O Canal's last missing, flood-destroyed section is slated to be rebuilt as part of an economic stimulus package.

Fifty years ago, a plan to turn the canal into a major highway was all but a done deal. It was only preserved through the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose publicity generating hike along its length kept the bulldozers from destroying this wonderful blend of nature and history.

The $12 million canal restoration project is not without controversy. But rather that see things only in the moment, occasionally it pays to look through the lens of passing generations. This isn't just about us. It isn't just about today.

I dare say that few people gaze at Fort Frederick now, and think to themselves, "What a waste that government restored these walls 80 years ago."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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