C&O Canal remains a treasure

April 09, 2011|By PAT SCHOOLEY | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • The Western Maryland Lift Bridge still stands, awaiting restoration, over a rewatered section of canal.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — This is the 186th in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

With great celebration, the Cheasapeake and Ohio Canal Company broke ground on July 4, 1828, intending to build a canal that would follow the Potomac River and eventually reach Pittsburgh.

This canal would open up the Ohio Valley and the Midwest to commerce from Maryland; it would bind the new country together. Canals were a proven technology, used successfully in Europe and in New York for the Erie Canal. George Washington had supported a canal along the Potomac River since he accompanied British Gen. Edward Braddock on his fateful march to Fort Duquesne in 1755.     

Also on July 4, 1828, the B&O Railroad broke ground along the same path with a similar goal. Railroads were a new technology. Steam engines were just being developed in Britain and America. There was no certainty these engines could pull trains up inclines. Elaborate schemes for using horses to assist this labor were on the boards. But the visionaries who planned a railroad to haul products from the hinterlands to the cities on the coast and goods back to the hinterlands believed that it would work.

The battle for right-of-way up the Potomac valley was marked with confrontations between the two companies, shortages of funds and a brutal struggle to carve a canal and a railroad bed out of the unforgiving rock along the river. Floods, bad weather, economic downturns and low water levels all hampered work.

Manpower to do this excavation was often hard to find, and nearly all the work was done by hand. Work crews sometimes fought with locals and among themselves, sometimes rebelled against bad treatment and lack of pay. Legal battles over the rights-of-way took four years to resolve in the canal's favor. Cholera struck in 1832. Workers were sickened. Many died.

The B&O Railroad reached Cumberland Md., in 1842 and the Ohio River in 1853. The canal arrived at Cumberland in 1850 — eight years after its rival had passed through. Mired in debt, the Canal Company did not continue construction. Rather, they shipped coal from the mines around Cumberland to the Georgetown port and the capital city. Unfortunately, the Potomac basin was sparsely populated and residents had little money to buy products from the city. Boats often returned to Cumberland empty.

The Civil War started along the canal with the attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, then in Virginia. More floods came. The character of the Potomac valley changed as the importance of waterpower and water transportation faded. Even the mighty B&O faded in the mid-20th century in the face of railroad mergers, the internal combustion engine and highways.

The 20th century at the canal

Canal operations began in 1828 and were suspended after the flood of 1924. Then the Great Depression struck. Frederic Delano, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's uncle, was the chairman of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. He suggested the canal as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. The federal government purchased the canal for $2 million in 1938. The CCC restored the first 22 miles of the canal to working condition, but another flood and WWII dispelled any thoughts of re-watering the entire 184.5-mile canal.

After the war, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed a proposal that had been under development for eight years: build dams. One dam, 119 feet high, would stand just above Great Falls, and 13 more would be built all the way to Shepherdstown. These dams would flood the Monocacy and Antietam aqueducts, much of the towpath and the historic section of Harpers Ferry, all in the name of flood control.

In contrast, an alternate plan to construct a parkway modeled on Skyline Drive seemed attractive. The Washington Post endorsed such a plan in 1954. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent outdoorsman, wrote a letter to the Post inviting the editors to join him on a walking tour of the towpath.

 The editors accepted, and a large group started down the towpath from Cumberland on March 20, 1954, with Douglas extolling the beauty of canal environs and the need to retain this piece of nature for future generations. Nine people completed the walk with Douglas. The Post editors dropped out before the end but had seen enough to withdraw their support for the parkway.

Nothing happens quickly in government, and the fight to preserve the historic fabric and natural resources of the canal had just begun. Proposals for dams and for parkways were heard and draft legislation presented throughout the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. The parkway plan found its realization in what is now the Clara Barton Parkway, destroying Lockhouse 5 in the process. The C&O Canal became a National Monument in 1961. Finally, on Jan. 8, 1971, President Nixon signed a law designating the canal the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

As a historical park

Once acquired, the Park Service spent some years obtaining additional property along the canal that it felt should be part of the park, including portions of the canal that had been sold, farmsteads that adjoined it and historic structures adjacent to it. The park now includes some 18,000 acres, or about 300 square miles.

This remnant of an outdated industrial technology stands as a testament to the lives of the skilled masons who built the walls and the locks and the lockhouses, of those who spent their lives transporting coal and other product down the canal to Georgetown and of those who lived in the lockhouses so that they could be available day or night to open or close the locks as needed.

Washington County contains 43 percent of this magnificent park, and the canal has profoundly influenced the county's history. Before the Civil War, Caspar Wever, engineer and entrepreneur, purchased land at the Washington/Frederick County line and named it Weverton. He dreamed of using the 15-foot drop in the river between Harpers Ferry and his land to power factories. Structures from this adventure still stand.

Above Dam No. 4 Road, cliffs meet the river's edge, and engineers took advantage of the slack water above the dam to carry canal boat traffic out into the river. Mules towed the boats while walking along a towpath hewn out of the cliffs along the river's edge or built on fill areas supported by masonry retaining walls. Floods repeatedly damaged this section of the towpath, and the storm of 1996 tore out the towpath and closed Big Slackwater for a distance of about 2.7 miles. This break in the towpath is under repair now.

Canal and its towns

Willamsport stands at the confluence of Conococheague Creek and the Potomac River. Here an aqueduct carried the canal across the creek, and much of this structure remains. Williamsport became a destination for coal, some of which was used at its electric power plant. Williamsport is the home of Cushwa Basin, where canal boats could be turned around. Cushwa Brick shipped product down the canal from here, and a Cushwa warehouse still stands at the site.

The Western Maryland Lift Bridge raised train cars over the canal so they could deposit loads on its east side.  This bridge still stands, awaiting restoration, over a rewatered section of canal. If it can at least be raised into the up position, canal boats can travel the rewatered section into the basin. A visitors' center operates at the basin as well.    

Upriver, the canal veered from the river's edge and cut across the neck of a great oxbow in the river, using four locks in the half-mile neck to negotiate the steep drop the river made in that meander. This saved 4 miles of length in the canal. At Four Locks, a community grew, with several houses, a store, a school, a mule barn for winter shelter of the mules that towed the boats, a lockhouse and a wait house where the lockkeeper stayed out of the weather while working. People lived out their lives along this stretch of canal.

A little further along, Fort Frederick, an 18th-century fortification built to protect citizens during the French and Indian War, stands back from the river and the canal. Now rebuilt, it offers an earlier view of life in Washington County.

Hancock has always been tied to transportation, with river traffic, Conestoga wagons going west on the National Road, then the canal and now motorized traffic on Interstate 70. Here another canal visitors' center has opened.

The Park Service protects the canal for everyone, working to make the canal available to the public. Maintenance is expensive, and there is never enough money to do everything. But people who love the canal understand. They join the C&O Canal Association. They become level walkers and patrol sections of the canal, retrieving trash, reporting problems, helping visitors. The association collects money to fund urgent projects. They join the bike patrol. It all helps the park work.

The trust and the celebration

The C&O Canal Trust was organized in 2007 to support canal projects financially. It has furnished three of the refurbished lockhouses and provides visitors an opportunity to stay in them (see More lockhouses will be opening as canal quarters. This will provide money for canal projects and opportunities for visitors to live the canal life. Win-win. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the park, the trust has created a website describing 40 sites on the canal ( that will interest visitors.

Plans still swirl about the canal. Rewater it all. Use it for transportation of people or goods, do nothing, do some but not all. These might come to pass, but the canal works now, providing recreation to more than 4.1 million people a year.

Cyclists and walkers, joggers and sightseers wander the towpath, finding old ruins, bridges, locks, lockhouses, aqueducts, caves, sightings of blue heron, an occasional eagle, deer, puffballs and the serenity of nature. It is a marvelous facility, a blessing for our community.

 Those who want to join the C&O Canal Association should go to Go to the website of the C&O Canal Trust,, to learn of canal events, volunteer opportunities, history and photographs.

Other ways to enjoy the canal:

•  Offer your help at one of the Canal Pride Days.

 • Listen to a podcast available from the Trust while hiking or biking along the towpath.

Writer's note: I am indebted to Mike High's The C&O Canal Companion for much of the historic information in this article and to Sam Tamburro, Cultural Resource Program Manager for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, for all his help getting it right.

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