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C&O Canal improvements near Hancock sought

September 07, 2010|By DON AINES
  • Mann's Construction of Hancock is working to repair the C&O Canal over Culvert 182 which serves to convey the Little Tonoloway Creek.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer,

HANCOCK -- There is no pile of money set aside to make improvements to a two-mile section of the C&O Canal outside Hancock, but a realistic plan for its future could include an extension of the rewatered portion of the canal with an excursion barge or two plying its waters.

Hancock-area residents and canal supporters have until Sept. 13 to submit suggestions to be included in an environmental assessment that would form the basis for preservation, restoration or reconstruction of its features in the years to come. About 25 residents recently attended a public meeting with representatives of the National Park Service at the town hall.

At 184 1/2 miles in length, the C&O Canal National Historical Park runs from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., and is one of the most visited in the nation, Superintendent Kevin D. Brandt said. The canal brings 75,000 to 100,000 visitors to the Hancock area each year, and about 250,000 to Williamsport, he said.

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"A lot of people in the community have asked me if we can expand that area," Brandt told those attending the meeting about the Little Tonoloway Picnic Area. He also said that "Hancock is one of the marquee stops" for cyclists who use the Western Maryland Rail Trail.

"We don't want to propose something so expensive it never happens ... We need to come up with sensible solutions that have a chance to be implemented," Brandt said.

Whatever is included in the plan probably will not have cost estimates attached, Brandt told residents.

A few members of the Hancock Historical Society got together last week to discuss improvements they want to see included in a letter to the park service, President Don Corbett said. Individual members were encouraged to submit their own letters, he said.

"From a monetary standpoint, I don't think they'll be able to do a lot of that," he said of the historical society's suggestions. Those suggestions include repairing Lock 52 and filling the canal from there to the rewatered section in Hancock, along with preserving the foundation and the P.T. Little store and placing more historical signs there and elsewhere.

A few hundred yards of the canal was rewatered in the 1990s and Brandt said that could be extended in the future, including at the Tonoloway Aqueduct, which he said is in relatively good repair.

"The priority would be coming up with a solution that is the least expensive and works," said Councilman Tim Smith, who said he wants an excursion boat and more of the canal rewatered.

"Go to the Park 'n' Dine Restaurant and there's a painting on the wall that shows a canal boat on the canal ... I would love to see a canal boat," said Larry Gerber Sr., chairman of the Hancock Lions Club 34th Annual Canal-Apple Days Festival, scheduled for Sept. 18-19.

Whether an electric-powered excursion barge -- which Brandt suggested as a possibility -- or a static historical display, Gerber said a barge would attract visitors.

The area being studied is between mile 122.12 and mile 124.59, a section that includes Locks 51 and 52 and the lock house ruins at both sites; the Bowles Farm and Four Locks Maintenance Complex; Tonoloway Aqueduct; and the Little Tonoloway Picnic Area.

At an Aug. 25 meeting, Park Historian Ahna Wilson said the Hancock section has primarily undergone basic preservation work in recent years. Future work ranges from preservation to the more-expensive options of restoration and reconstruction.

One possibility being examined is moving the maintenance complex to an area not prone to flooding, Wilson said.

Comments received by the Sept. 13 deadline will be reviewed as part of the environmental assessment and assessment of effects process over the fall and winter and presented for public review next spring, according to the schedule. Proposals for the canal should be ready by summer 2011.

A similar study was done in 1989 and Brandt said it became the basis for work completed since then, including rewatering the canal at Hancock.

The canal has not carried cargo for nearly nine decades, but Brandt said maintenance projects are ongoing, including a $17 million restoration of 2.4 miles of towpath at Big Slackwater near Williamsport. There, the canal enters the Potomac River and the towpath is carved from rock. That part of the towpath will reopen in 2012, Brandt said.

In the Hancock area, a $2 million restoration of the culvert that carries Tonoloway Creek beneath the canal is under way, Brandt said.

With major industries having closed their doors, Hancock relies heavily on the canal and the tourist dollars it brings to the community of fewer than 2,000 people for events such as Canal-Apple Days and the annual Barge Bash, Corbett and Mayor Daniel Murphy said.

"You can't think of Hancock without thinking of the canal," Murphy said.

Comments can be submitted online to the park service's Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at parkplanning.nps.gov. Written comments can be mailed to Superintendent, C&O Canal National Historical Park, 1850 Dual Highway, Suite 100, Hagerstown, MD 21740.

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