Ideas to improve C&O Canal area studied

July 19, 2009|By DAVE McMILLION

o What do you think should would draw more tourists to towns along the C&O Canal? Vote in our online poll.

Imagine climbing into a boat along the C&O Canal in Williamsport and passing through the Conococheague Aqueduct, under a railroad lift bridge, and through Lock 44, just as canal travelers did a century ago.

It's an idea that is getting serious consideration as local government officials, National Park Service authorities, tourism experts and others search for ways to renovate the structures and capitalize on growing numbers of visitors to the park.

Ideas such as rebuilding and re-watering the deteriorated Conococheague Aqueduct have been talked about for years, but Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said a new enthusiasm is building.


Officials of Williamsport, which is steeped in canal history, and C&O Canal National Historical Park officials did not communicate well in the past, but the two sides are working together these days, McCleaf said.

About $1 million in state highway funds were sought to put the railroad lift bridge back into operation and to restore Lock 44.

Maryland Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said that during the last session of Maryland's General Assembly, he helped secure $1 million for those projects.

Munson said he believes tourism potential for the C&O Canal is "incredible."

One of the reasons the C&O Canal's future looks bright is because of Kevin Brandt, the park's superintendent, Munson said.

"This superintendent is making things happen," Munson said.

A building momentum

Other stretches of the canal also are getting attention.

In late April, $12.1 million in federal stimulus money was earmarked for the long-anticipated rebuilding of a deteriorated 2.7-mile stretch of the canal south of Williamsport referred to as Big Slackwater.

Tourism officials said the project was vital to eliminating a detour off the towpath that bicyclists must use to get around the eroded Big Slackwater section of the canal.

Brandt said more money probably would be needed to rebuild the Big Slackwater section.

"This has been a momentum that has been building for many years," Brandt said of the overall efforts to improve the canal.

The Conococheague Aqueduct is a limestone structure that carried the C&O Canal over the mouth of the Conococheague Creek at Williamsport. The aqueduct allowed canal boats to glide over Conococheague Creek and roll into Williamsport canal landmarks such as the Cushwa turning basin, where boat merchants could pick up loads of coal and brick.

The side of the aqueduct facing upstream on the Conococheague Creek collapsed in 1920 and fell into the creek.

McCleaf said he has been told that rebuilding the aqueduct and "re-watering" the structure would cost about $5 million.

"It's a large number but it's not unreachable," said McCleaf, who talked about rebuilding the aqueduct during his run for re-election in March.

McCleaf said the town will look for grants to help rebuild the aqueduct. Now that the town has been included in the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, that money should be easier to come by, he said.

The Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area is a geographical location recognized by the Maryland Heritage Areas Program. Washington, Carroll and Frederick counties are included in the Heritage Area.

The heritage area program's stated mission is to promote the stewardship of historic, cultural and natural Civil War resources, focus on visitor experiences, and stimulate tourism, economic prosperity and educational development, according to its Web site at

Obtaining a Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area designation makes communities eligible for grants, loans and tax credits to help them promote tourism.

Brandt acknowledged that the National Park Service wants to restore the Conococheague Aqueduct, but said the rehabilitation of the railroad lift bridge and renovation of Lock 44 are ahead of it on a priority list.

The railroad lift bridge is a short distance from the Cushwa turning basin. Using a system of cables, the bridge was lifted to allow canal boats to pass under it.

The idea is to make the bridge, Lock 44 and the Conococheague Aqueduct operational so people riding on a replica of a canal boat will see how the system worked, McCleaf said.

Boats traveling on the 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal from its origin in Washington, D.C., to its terminus in Cumberland, Md., passed through 74 lift locks, which compensated for the changes in water elevation as the Potomac River flowed downstream.

Locks are structures enclosed by gates through which the level of the water can be changed to enable the canal boats to be raised or lowered from one water level to another.

The biggest problem with Lock 44, which is near the railroad lift bridge, is an aging clay liner, Brandt said. Tree roots have grown through the liner and it no longer holds water, he said.

Coming Tuesday:

o One issue that comes up when the talk turns to tourism and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is: How one gets to the towpath?

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