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Ceremony marks start of C&O towpath repairs

August 07, 2010|By ANDREW SCHOTZ
  • Shovels and hardhats are ready Saturday for an event marking the beginning of repairs to Big Slackwater, a 2.7-mile stretch of impassable towpath in C&O Canal National Historical Park south of Williamsport. Much of the Big Slackwater section was washed away by floods.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Poised to fix the only gap in America's longest national park, officials gathered along the C&O Canal National Historical Park on Saturday to celebrate the start of the repair.

Some mentioned the rallying cry "No slack on Big Slack" -- a reference to the persistence of many in getting funding to fix Big Slackwater, a 2.7-mile impassable stretch of towpath south of Williamsport.

Big Slackwater is the only break in the 184.5-mile park, which runs from the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md.

Park officials and supporters say mending the gap could bring in thousands of new visitors and millions of dollars in tourism money, and will eliminate a dangerous detour.

The project is expected to cost $17.2 million, with about 75 percent -- $12.8 million -- covered by federal stimulus money.

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The Cianbro Corp. has the contract to do the work, which is expected to take about 18 months. The National Park Service says missing or washed-out retaining walls will be reconstructed, while some parts of the towpath will need more modest stabilization.

Flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 demolished the towpath above Dam 4. The National Park Service repaired and reopened the park at Big Slackwater in 1995, but it was flooded again the next year and was shut down, Bill Justice, the park's chief of interpretation, has said.

Now, money and aid are flowing.

"The path to success has been through an exemplary partnership between the federal, state and local governments, park visitors and the business communities, all of whom passionately support and appreciate the C&O Canal National Historical Park," Kevin Brandt, the park's superintendent, said during Saturday's celebration.

About 125 people attended and listened to speakers under a shade-tree canopy, amid a constant hum of cicadas.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said he asked his staff to walk along the eroded stretch. Hearing that the need was indeed real, Cardin said he and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., lobbied top Department of the Interior officials to get the work done.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley also played a significant role in securing funding.

The project is getting $4.4 million from the state's Transportation Enhancement Program.

Swaim-Staley, who grew up in Hagerstown, said Munson called her and asked for her help. Money allocated to other projects that were in limbo was redirected to the repair of Big Slackwater.

"It was an easy choice in the end to be able to say, 'Let's take that money and put it towards a project that's ready to go,'" Swaim-Staley said.

Thomas B. Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that nearly half of the park is in Washington County. Repairing Big Slackwater will boost tourism, create jobs and bring in more money, he said.

Officials also said the repair project is necessary for public safety.

To get around the 2.7-mile break at Big Slackwater, hikers and bicyclists have had to take a roughly 4.5-mile detour along Dam 4, Dellinger and Avis Mill roads, which don't have shoulders. Dam 4 Road is windy in spots and has sharp turns and drops.

According to Justice, there have been 35 accidents in the past five years along the detour in which someone was taken to the hospital.

By chance, a group touring the Big Slackwater area by boat -- including staff members for Cardin and Mikulski -- saw the after effects of a crash, said Matthew Logan, president of C&O Canal Trust, a nonprofit organization. A vehicle had had hit a deer.

The C&O Canal Trust, the C&O Canal Association and U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., also were praised for their help and support on the repair project.

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