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Access to canal and towpath not easy

July 20, 2009|By DAVE McMILLION

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TRI-STATE -- One issue that comes up when talk turns to tourism on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is this: How do you get there from here?

The question of easy access to the canal and towpath is one of the issues being discussed as area towns try to find ways to attract more tourists, both to the C&O and to the towns.

There are those, for instance, who say getting to the canal and towpath at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., can be a tricky business, especially for bicyclists.

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To reach the area around canal's Lock 33, tourists cross a railroad bridge that spans the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. On the Maryland side, tourists reach the canal on a separate wooden foot bridge along the edge of the railroad bridge.

As tourists approach the end of the foot bridge, they find that to reach the canal they must walk down a steel spiral staircase with an open-grate design through which they can see the woods below.

Some people don't like the staircase; others don't mind.

Brett Gibbons was standing atop the staircase one afternoon during a visit to Harpers Ferry and gazed over to the Potomac River shoreline below.

Would he be willing to carry a bicycle down the steps?

"I wouldn't think so," said Gibbons of Ventura, Calif., who had recently participated in a Civil War re-enactment in New Market, Va., and planned to go to Gettysburg, Pa.

"You could do it, but it would be awfully hard," Gibbons said.

In addition to Harpers Ferry, the C&O Canal towpath winds past the towns of Shepherdstown in West Virginia, and Williamsport and Hancock in Washington County.

The Potomac River can be seen between openings in the wooden footbridge at Harpers Ferry, a view that Ivan Hooker said gives him "a little vertigo" when he looks down.

Despite the uneasy feeling, Hooker, of Washington, D.C., who was walking across the bridge on a recent day, said he would be willing to take a bike down the steps.

"I would go down very slowly and definitely with a hand on the handrail," Hooker said.

Even though the owner of The Angler's Inn bed-and-breakfast on Washington Street in Harpers Ferry has worked to attract bicyclists to the inn, he tells visitors not to use the steps on the footbridge at Harpers Ferry.

Bryan Kelly said he tells cyclists it's better to get to the towpath at Shepherdstown because access there is better.

"That (foot) bridge on the other side is a killer," said Kelly, who noted he was repeating a comment he often hears from tourists. "It dissuades tourism."

Kelly, who also owns Kelly's White Fly Shop on German Street in Shepherdstown, said he has had to go to the Maryland side of the bridge to help people haul bicycles up the stairs because they were tired and had not realized the steps were there.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which is on the Harpers Ferry side of the Potomac River, has a lease agreement to maintain the footbridge, which is owned by CSX, park spokesman Marsha Wassel said.

Should the park get involved in assessing its role in C&O Canal tourism as area towns have done, and if the issue of access to the bridge should come up, officials would have to determine who would be responsible for any improvement work and how it would be funded, Wassel said.

"Changing that access would require funding," Wassel said. "Where that funding would come from is probably the largest question mark."

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Superintendent Rebecca Harriett said Kelly would know best about the problem of access since he caters to bicyclists.

But she said Harpers Ferry National Historical Park still gets many visitors and the park has several bike racks around its lower town property to accommodate cyclists.

Harpers Ferry Mayor Jim Addy agreed there are problems associated with Harpers Ferry's access to the C&O Canal and said he believes there should be some type of ramp from the canal.

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