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National park and Williamsport celebrate C&O Canal heritage

August 21, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Susan Whitcraft brought Katie, a C&O Canal boat-pulling mule, to the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport for the 2001 C&O Canal Days. The visitors center will host "Meet the Mules" during the 2013 C&O Canal Days on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25.
File photo

WILLIAMSPORT — The barges long ago stopped plying the 180-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md.

But along its path, glimpses of the past remain — from lock houses and aqueducts to dams and pump houses.

If these old structures could talk, they might tell of an era when the canal took its place in American history. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, boats carried everything from coal and grain to cloth and timber.

But transportation wasn’t its only feat. The canal also played a role in the Civil War, immigration, engineering and commerce.

Stories have been passed down through the generations of life along the C&O Canal, when families lived hard and simple existences, in tune with the flow of the water. Some people made their homes on their boats, weighted down with freight. Others focused on the opening and closing of the locks to allow canal boats to pass or tended the mules that pulled the barges.

Today, the C&O Canal is a national park — part history lesson, part nature excursion and part recreational outlet. The waters are calm and dappled with sunlight seeping through sycamore and oak trees.

But the stories of the rich human history live on, not only in photographs and books, but through music.

For the past 20 years, Matthew Dodd has used songs to tell a story.

Dressed in period clothing, the Mechanicsburg, Pa., resident transports listeners back in time with period music from the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Old West, the early days of railroading and life on the C&O Canal.

Dodd will be sharing both song and story when he appears at the 36th annual Williamsport C&O Canal Days, Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25.

Williamsport was once considered to be one of the most important ports on the canal and each year the area celebrates its heritage with a variety of offerings.

While many activities will be centered near the Cushwa Basin Visitor Center, events also are planned throughout the Town of Williamsport, ranging from craft sales and an antique tractor show to wagon rides and a barn dance. Several events will take place prior to the weekend, including the annual C&O Canal Days concert, which is at 7 p.m. today in Byron Park. The concert will honor Lula Brant Harsh, a lifelong resident of Williamsport, who grew up on the canal at Lock House No. 44, where her father, Harvey Brant, was the lock keeper.

Dodd will appear from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday near the Cushwa Basin.

“I’ve been playing music solo and in bands for 40 years or more,” Dodd said. “And I have always been interested in the background stories of history — the ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that’ facts. When I came up with the idea to do my Songs and Stories shows, it was a great chance to put the two interests together.”

Dodd, a retired school teacher, came up with the concept of doing history-themed shows, he said, “when my family was at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in a small period tavern. I said, ‘This would be a good place for a guy in period clothing, singing period songs and telling stories about them.’ My kids all said, ‘Well, that would be you, Dad.’ And so, an idea was born and I put together my first show, ‘Songs and Stories of the Civil War.’”

Other shows followed, Dodd said, as historic groups and community organizations began making requests and suggestions. He now performs “Songs and Stories” that cover a wide scope of subjects. In one performance, he can be a Civil War soldier from either North or South or an escaped slave. He can portray a rail splitter, track layer, passenger or engineer in the days of steam trains. Or maybe he’s an explorer, pioneer, prospector, gunfighter or American Indian. He might even be a hobo riding the rails in the early 1900s looking for work.

In addition to his educational and entertaining history presentations, Dodd also offers holiday-themed shows, featuring the legends and factual stories behind the customs and symbols of such celebrations as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and Christmas.

Throughout each show, Dodd tells his story with song and musical instruments, including the guitar, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, concertina and dulcimer.

“One interesting fact is that I traveled to Nashville (Tenn.) to be a consultant on and a performer in a Nashville Public Television documentary on Civil War music,” he shared.

Putting together a performance with a particular historic theme doesn’t happen overnight, Dodd said.

“It takes a lot of reading about each period to be able to enter the character I portray,” he said. “It’s a kind of re-enacting. When I am in character, I try to see the whole world from his point of view. This is especially fun when my character interacts with modern folks in the audience. I spend a year or more putting each new show together. But my years of reading deep into history helps.”

Dodd said people attending the C&O Canal Days show “will get a real feel for how the canals worked and what the canal people did. All of my facts are done with a lot of humor and, of course, a lot of music. And they can expect to be singing along.”

More information about Matthew Dodd can be found at his website, songsandstories.homestead.com.



C&O Canal Days schedule

Events are at or near the Cushwa Basin Visitor Center:

Thursday, Aug. 22

7 p.m. — Byron Park, Town of Williamsport and the Williamsport Community Band’s annual C&O Canal Days Concert. Lula Brant Harsh will be honored and the Williamsport Community Band members will be recognized as grand ambassadors of Williamsport.

Friday, Aug. 23

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — Williamsport Memorial Library’s Annual Book Sale, lower level

5 p.m. — Williamsport Lion’s Club Annual Ox Roast at the Improved Order of Red Men Concococheague Tribe 84 picnic grounds. Tickets cost $9. Call Brent Taylor at 240-291-7690 or Lee Downey at 301-223-7333 for more information.  

 7 to 10 p.m. — First River Rat Street Dance, East Salisbury and corner of North Conococheague streets. Prize for the longest Rat Tail (used to be called a pony tail). River Rat shirts cost $10 at Town Hall during regular business hours 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 24

9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — C&O Visitor Center open with exhibits and movies.

9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — Trolley Barn at the Cushwa Basin is open with exhibits, movies and hands on activities for children including 19th-century games and dress up.

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — Nature display outside the Trolley Barn

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — Artisans, crafters and food vendor locations include Byron Park and Desert Rose Cafe.

10 a.m. to noon — Kids’ open mic at Desert Rose Café

10:30 a.m., 12:15, 1:30 and 3 p.m. — Interpretive canal boat excursions available. Each program is one hour long and begins at the Cushwa Warehouse Visitor Center. Tours are free, first come, first served. Sign up in advance in the Visitor Center.

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — “Meet the Mules” that pull the C&O Canal boats in Great Falls, Cushwa Basin.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Lock House No. 44 is open with tours of the first floor and lock demonstrations available.

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — Town Museum, in the lower level in Springfield Farm Barn.

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — Williamsport Memorial Library Annual Book Sale, lower level

11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — 19th century canal dress up and photo time in the Trolley Barn.

Noon — Lion’s Club C&O Canal Days Boat Float in the Conococheague Creek.

2 to 4 p.m. — Entertainment by Evolution Rock School, Byron Park

8 to 11 p.m. — Barn dance with Paul Wagner & the Country Swingers, Springfield Barn. Tickets available at door. $3 per person or $5 couple. Advance barn dance ticket available at Briar Patch at 301-223-4599 or Touch of Country at 301-223-1899.

Sunday, Aug. 25

9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — C&O Visitor Center is open with exhibits and movies.

9 to 4:30 p.m. — Trolley barn open

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — Artisans, crafters and food vendor locations include Byron Park and Desert Rose Cafe.

10 to 4 p.m. — Lock House No. 44 is open with tours of the first floor and lock demonstrations available.

10:30 a.m., 12:15, 1:30 and 3 p.m. — Interpretive canal boat excursions available. Each program is one hour long and begins at the Cushwa Warehouse Visitor Center. Tours are free, first come, first served. Sign up in advance in the Visitor Center.

11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — 19th century canal dress up and photo time in the Trolley Barn.

11 a.m. to noon — “Magic Mystique” Show by the Dean of Magic with Dean Burkett, Byron Park bandstand

Noon to 3 p.m. — Canal music by Matthew Dodd near the basin.

Noon to 4 p.m. — Williamsport Memorial Library Annual Book Sale

1 to 4 p.m. — Entertainment by the band Chubby, Byron Park

3 p.m. — Canal Family Reunion at the Trolley Barn. The National Park Service invites anyone who may have a relative or know of someone who worked on the canal or boats to come share their story. For more information, contact the Williamsport Visitor Center at 301-582-0813.

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