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C&O Canal worth the investment - and interest

July 25, 2009

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When President John Quincy Adams attempted to turn the ceremonial first spade of earth for the C&O Canal on July 4, 1828, he hit a rock, leaving the shovel reverberating ineffectively in his hands. In retrospect, some have taken this misfortune as an omen that canal builders should have stopped then and there.

On the same day, 40 miles to the north, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, was having better luck breaking ground for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and that venture would beat the canal at almost every turn.

Yet as interest and funding grow for the old "Great National Project," it is the C&O, or the memory of it, anyway, that may have the last laugh.

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With close to two centuries of perspective, it's popular to say that the canal could never compete with the railroad, and that by the time the digging reached Cumberland in 1850 the watercourse was already obsolete (the railroad had beaten it there by eight years). So the whole venture was a waste of time and money, just as some believe that the same could be said of today's talk of refurbishing the canal.

But in 1828, the two projects were not necessarily thought of in terms of direct competition. No one at the time knew how powerful locomotives would one day become, so the idea was that the trains would convey people and light freight, while the canal did the heavy lifting, its barges filled with coal, corn, plaster, lumber, cement and flour.

From aqueducts to tunnels to locks, the project was marvelously engineered. The current was graded so that the loaded boats headed downstream and the empty boats headed back would provide about the same effort for the mules. Canal boats easily slipped into the locks, with three inches to spare on each side, and a $5 fine for any captain unskilled enough to dink the walls.

Immigrant construction crews had lasting impacts on our county - some credit, or blame, South County's reputation in the 1920s for the finest moonshine on the East Coast to the descendants of the Irish who occasionally worked on the canal in between fistfights.

And in the 1870s, no one would have dreamed of calling the canal a failure, as traffic was heavy and shipping rose to a million tons of freight a year. Strolling along the lonely, tree-studded depression today does little justice to what was once a frantic, swashbuckling world of crowded ports, crafty merchants, ornery mules, well-stocked taverns and impatient canal captains. At 184 miles, the C&O Canal was very likely the longest continuous string of profanity in the world.

There has always been some talk, usually muted and without much hope, of restoring some of these scenes and impressing upon the public that the canal was at one time a dog that did indeed have its day.

Curiously, it was once mules that were the canal's economic engine, and today it might be bicycles. Several groups, as reported in a series by The Herald-Mail's Dave McMillion this week, are correctly recognizing the potentially tremendous impact of the new Great Allegheny Passage, which joins the canal towpath to provide a bike path from downtown Washington, D.C., to near downtown Pittsburgh.

With little question, this will become the mid-Atlantic's Holy Grail of rail trails, the impact of which can hardly be overstated. The Passage has also prompted people to think of the route as a unit, whereas in the past, efforts to capitalize on what is now the C&O National Park have been, commercially speaking, fragmented. But what's good for Hancock is good for Williamsport, and what's good for Williamsport is good for Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, Brunswick and on down the line.

As fascinating as history can be, it also has its warnings, and potential improvements to the canal must always be tempered by the thought of what those improvements might look like under 12 feet of raging floodwaters, and how they might stand up to the inevitable inundation. But Harpers Ferry has shown us that history and flood plains need not be mutually exclusive.

There also will be many divergent opinions of what the canal should be, ranging from commercial, tourist hotspot to bird-chirping wilderness. But an advantage of a park nearly 200 miles in length is that it literally can be all things to all people - commercial, historical or natural.

Awakening this slumbering giant will be no small project, but the C&O Canal is likely the greatest public works, engineering, economic and social feat this county has ever seen, and with Antietam National Battlefield, is our greatest historical asset. And even 85 years after the last barge plied its waters, its best days might yet lie ahead.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under www.opinion@herald-mail.com, on www.antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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