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C&O Canal officials float launch boat replica into Cushwa Basin

Boat was being tested by National Park Service in preparation for introduction of boat rides

April 26, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Park Ranger Virginia Hughes throws a tie rope to Ranger Brian Carlstrom to bring the new canal boat closer to the crowd for a look. The boat was launched Tuesday morning at Cushwa Basin in Williamsport.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

A crowd of more than 100 local politicians, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal officials and preschool children cheered Tuesday morning as a crane lowered a replica of a canal launch boat into the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport.

The boat was being tested by the National Park Service in preparation for the introduction of boat rides at Williamsport and other sites next spring, officials said.

"You just can't put into words what this boat going in the water means for the people of this town and for Washington County," Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf said before the launch.

"Economic development in Williamsport will take off — it will bloom. Our downtown will be revitalized. We'll have businesses left and right."

The 30-foot launch boat is battery-powered and was modeled after similar battery- and steam-powered boats introduced in the 1890s to transport passengers and company officials along the canal for business and recreation, said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

The launch boats operated alongside the larger, mule-drawn cargo boats until the canal's closure in 1924, Brandt said.

"There were only a few of them by comparison to the 500 or more mule-drawn cargo boats that were out there," said Bill Justice, the park's chief of interpretation.

The launch tested Tuesday is the first of five such boats that are being made for the C&O Canal by a company in Rhode Island, Justice said. They are made of contemporary materials, with fiberglass hulls, but are styled to look like the original launch boats, he said.

The 18-passenger replica launch boats will add "another on-water interpretive opportunity" in addition to the mule-drawn canal boats the park operates in Georgetown and Great Falls, Md., Brandt said.

The launch boats can be transported easily between sites and will be moved between a variety of watered canal sections, including Widewater, Pennyfield, Williamsport, Big Pool, Hancock and Cumberland, a C&O Canal news release said.

In Williamsport, Brandt said he envisions the boat rides eventually going through Lock 44, which was used to raise and lower boats to different water levels, and crossing the Conococheague Creek Aqueduct, a bridge-like structure that carried the canal over the creek.

"To me, and certainly for those children that are here today, (the Williamsport section) can tell a story like no place else on this canal," Brandt said, gesturing toward a group of 2- through 5-year-olds from the nearby Rehoboth Learning Center who came to witness the launch.

The lock will have to be restored and the aqueduct rewatered before that full vision can be realized, Justice said.

 He said park officials expect boat rides to be available by spring 2012, but do not know the timeframe for the lock and aqueduct restoration.

Brandt said boats could potentially be available in time to provide rides during the Williamsport Days festival this August.

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