WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — It was a sore amid the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park’s towpath.
The Big Slackwater section of the popular 184.5-mile hiking and biking trail was closed after flooding in 1996 and deteriorated into a treacherous ridge overrun with brambles, thistles and poisonous plants.
The 2.7-mile stretch along the Potomac River near Williamsport was the sole disruption in the path that runs from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.
Towpath visitors were detoured off the trail and onto a dangerous route with no shoulders following 4.5 miles along Dam 4, Dellinger and Avis Mill roads. Two years ago, the National Park Service determined that during a five-year period, there were 35 accidents along the detour in which someone was taken to a hospital.
So the celebration was enthusiastic Saturday morning when community members and dignitaries gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the completion of the Big Slackwater restoration and the reopening of the path.
Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt addressed a crowd of about 150 people, stating that in addition to offering recreation, restoration of the towpath honors history, improves safety and benefits the local economy.
He commended Tom Perry of Williamsport, who for years passionately advocated for towpath restoration through his work with the C&O Canal Association and the Big Slackwater Restoration Committee. In August 2006, Perry and others organized a boat ride along the Potomac with elected officials and others to observe the battered landscape firsthand.
Brandt also recognized individuals who sought support for the restoration, but did live to see it come to fruition, including Bill Line, Carl Linden, Sue Ann Sullivan and Edward Miller.
“As you walk the towpath this morning, listen closely. I hope you will hear, as I have, Ed Miller’s voice calling out, ‘Don’t slack on Big Slack,’” Brandt said. “It took us a while, but as of today, we can say we’ve not slacked on Big Slackwater.”
The restoration project included drilling into bedrock and erecting concrete walkways along the river that will be able to withstand flooding. Some sections of the retaining wall were reconstructed while others required only stabilization.
Brandt said for years, the magnitude and expense of the project relegated it to “only a dream.” But advocates saw an opportunity and seized upon it with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which footed $12.8 million of the more than $19 million project.
The state of Maryland provided $4.4 million through the Transportation Enhancement Program. Maryland bond bills, National Park Service recreation fees and donations from the C&O Canal Association also funded the project.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, National Park Service National Capital Regional Director Steve Whitesell and Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham spoke at the ceremony from a platform flanked by the Potomac and the path entrance.
Cardin said Western Maryland has become increasingly recognized for its scenic beauty.
“I’ve been to a lot of national parks and this rivals any,” he said. “You can’t really appreciate it until you see it.”
He applauded the perseverance of restoration proponents and the work of 4,000 project volunteers, saying many might wonder how they accomplished such a complex, big-budget project. He called the restoration “an engineering marvel.”
“You worked together in order to find a way to get this done. You realized this was important to our future. What an incredible day. What an accomplishment. Be proud,” Cardin said.
Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the new towpath is expected to bring an additional 100,000 visitors to Washington County annually and $2 million to the local economy.
The canal was a vital contributor to the prosperity of Washington County’s in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Julianna Albowicz, a representative for Mikulski, said the reopening was “an important part of honoring our past and securing our future.”
“How sweet it is,” she said.
Brandt thanked residents of Avis Mill Road for their patience as crews using barges, cranes and other equipment passed through during the project.
Leon Bond, 57, who lives on the Williamsport road, said the increased activity and occasional inconvenience were well worth the results. He was excited that he and his granddaughter could be a witness to the reopening of the trail.
“My granddaughter and I always come down to the towpath,” Bond said. “I’m anxious for her to come down so we can walk the new section.”
Denise Shutt of Bel Air, Md., said she had biked the towpath 12 times before Saturday and she went to check out the new section.
“I ride the canal every year and I’ve never ridden this part because it was closed,” she said.
Laurie Mehalic also rides the trail from Cumberland to Washington, and was eager to see the new part. She said riding the trail uninterrupted would be “pretty cool.”
“People come from all over the country to do this,” Mehalic said. “It’s a short distance from D.C., but so quiet, so rural, so peaceful. And the history is amazing too.”
Following her ride on the new section, Mehalic said it was “great. Stunning.”