Investing in our past is investing in our future

July 03, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

The C&O Canal, affectionately known to some as the nation’s loveliest failure, might have been an overall bust, but it is also the victim of some exceedingly negative press.

Conventional canal wisdom has it that by the time it reached Cumberland in 1850 the canal had been rendered obsolete by the railroad. But some of the canal’s most important work was still 25 years into the future, when in 1875, close to 1 million tons of coal were tugged by mule to Georgetown.

We see it today as an overgrown ditch, with thick trees growing where hundred-foot canal boats once glided. But the passing of time compresses time, at least in modern memories. The impression we have of the canal is of a boondogglesque project that was dug at tremendous cost and heartbreak, limped along for a few years and then was washed away by raging Potomac floods.

There are elements of truth in this. But it is also true that if our interstate highway system survives for another three decades, it will only then have matched the canal in years of service.

Some of the canal’s later service was suspect, it’s true; it spent its last years as a pawn in ongoing railroad wars. But many a person in the Cumberland Valley would have lived and died without knowing life had commerce not drifted by daily on the C&O Canal.

It was a significant part of our state and national history, so it’s heartening to see the National Park Service pushing for extensive renovations that would take the Cushwa Basin at Williamsport back in time to the days when boats on the canal were what tractor-trailers are to Interstate 70 today.

The plan would restore the aqueduct to rewatering condition; restore warehouses, a trolley power plant and lockhouse; and provide for tourist boats down to Lock 44.

With little positive news on the local job front — at least until Hagerstown Community College and CHIEF’s biotech plans take flight — tourism is an industry we cannot afford to ignore.

It would also be wrong to underestimate the effect and scope that the canal can have on local tourism. In fact, it’s already having more of an effect than many of us realize.

On a recent Saturday in June, there was no parking left at the eastern terminus of the Western Maryland Rail Trail — cars with bike racks spilled out into the grass, and a steady flow of riders peddled up and down the path.

At the park service visitor center in Hancock, through-riders (it’s now possible to ride basically from Washington to Pittsburgh) were asking about spots throughout Washington County: Was there a bed and breakfast in Williamsport? Where can we eat? How far off the towpath is Antietam?

And there will be thousands of these riders for years to come, all getting a long, slow drink of what Washington County has to offer through the entire length of the county.

There can be no better public relations machine than this.

Washington County can create a boundary-to-boundary ribbon of attractions that local people can enjoy at will, and to which tourists will want to return. That’s why enthusiasts are promoting the park in its entirety, not just as a hodgepodge collection of canal towns.

Hancock has done a nice job of representing the sporting aspects — bicycling, fishing, boating — of the canal, and Williamsport is the logical choice to represent the canal’s industrial side.

If the park service is successful, Williamsport could be on its way to being something of a Harpers Ferry of Maryland, a spot where people from metropolitan areas will want to come and spend a day.

C&O Canal Superintendent Kevin Brandt said last month that the park service will likely finalize its Williamsport plans by year’s end. Brandt said he wasn’t terribly optimistic about federal funding in the near future, which is certainly a legitimate concern.

But when I covered the West Virginia legislature many moons ago, there was a vice chairman of finance who always walked around with a big grin on his face. A longtime politico explained why: “While everyone else is paying attention to the stuff with six zeros in the price tag, he goes around scooping up all the stuff that only has four zeros. Nobody ever notices, and he makes out like a bandit.”

So perhaps as the nation’s top leaders argue over trillion-dollar health care plans, wars and pensions, some kindly senator could slip the park a few million.

Nobody would ever notice, and beyond that there are few better, more productive ways to invest in our future than by investing in our past.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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