Western Maryland sees tourists, cash in C&O; Canal project


In the Western Maryland mountains and in small towns along the Potomac River, they're talking about tourists -- throngs of people expected to come when apparently coincidental plans to refurbish portions of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal are completed.

The canal work and related projects carry a combined price exceeding $210 million in private and publicly financed efforts that will roughly double the "bricks and mortar" cost of building Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Cumberland in Allegany County and Williamsport, in neighboring Washington County, are the primary beneficiaries of the work, which has started in recent months and is expected to be completed over the next decade, bolstering Western Maryland as a tourist destination.

"Clearly, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of new visitors each year," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat. "We're doing tens of thousands of people here now. We're talking about the one and only C&O; Canal in the country."

With an estimated cost of $200 million, the most extensive and expensive work is to occur on Cumberland's riverfront, where a multifaceted project named "Canal Place" has been started. The intent is to emphasize the city's history as one of the hubs in America's westward expansion.

Steps being taken include refurbishing the area around the Cumberland train station, rebuilding the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal's long-buried terminus, creating additional parkland and building a mile-long parkway along the Potomac River.

"There's no question these kinds of projects have a big impact on Western Maryland," said Mr. Taylor, a strong proponent of Canal Place. "The entire C&O; Canal is one of the historic gems in the country, and we just happen to have it."

In Washington County, the National Park Service is planning to make Williamsport -- a town that owes much of its existence to the C&O; Canal and retains several canal structures -- the home of its first comprehensive "interpretive site" for the 19th century waterway.

When this $6.3 million project is completed over the next several years, if plans go as hoped, a tourist's experience in Williamsport -- because of restored structures, such as locks, an aqueduct, railroad lift bridge and warehouses -- will exceed that in either Washington's Georgetown section or at Great Falls, in Montgomery County.

Mule-drawn barges also are expected to be part of the canal experience to be offered in Williamsport.

"We anticipate that Williamsport will be a major visitor area," said Terrie Savering, acting superintendent of the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park. "We want to give visitors a perspective on the whole span of the canal -- not just what happened at Williamsport or Great Falls or Cumberland."

At Great Falls, the Potomac River's most spectacular rapids and rugged surroundings are at least as much a tourist draw on both sides of the river as is the canal. Operating canal locks and several small, restored buildings help Great Falls' visitors understand how the canal operated, though, and something of its history.

Canal was begun in 1828

The C&O; Canal, heir to George Washington's dream of making the Potomac River navigable with a series of locks and canals, all in Maryland, was begun in Georgetown in 1828. It reached Williamsport, in 1835 already a prosperous river town because the Potomac was the primary means of transport between mountain communities, and Cumberland 15 years later.

Until competition from the new, technological marvel of the time -- the railroad -- and a flood put the canal out of business in 1924, long narrow boats transported coal, grain lumber and other goods between the nation's capital and Cumberland. The boats were towed by mule teams plodding along a 185-mile long tow path next to the canal.

"Williamsport is still very much a canal town," says Jon Baker, owner of Potomac Pushbikes, a Williamsport bicycle store that caters to many canal users. "A lot of people here in town have canal history roots, and a lot of people still enjoy using it."

With the park service moving ahead with its plans, Williamsport is tidying its streets. The town has spent $500,000 the past two years repaving streets, repairing curbs and sidewalks and other work, said Vance C. Ishler, town superintendent.

"All of this work will help our businesses and the flow of traffic coming downtown," Mayor John W. Slayman said. "The canal project has a multitude of benefits for those of us in Williamsport."

Complementary improvements also are set for Brunswick, in Frederick County, and Hancock, in western Washington County, where portions of canal also will be rewatered. The work in Hancock is nearly finished, but rewatering at Brunswick has been stalled until the source of petroleum contamination -- found near the canal -- can be found.

Rewatering the canal in the three towns will cost about $2.3 million. The project involves dredging the mostly dry canals and filling them with fresh water.

Road to restoration

The rewatering projects at Brunswick, Hancock and Williamsport are part of the National Park Service's long-range plans for those areas. The restoration work at Cumberland -- not part of those plans -- has come about because of efforts to build a road, now known as the Canal Parkway, to ease traffic congestion in southern Cumberland.

"It became more than a transportation project," Mr. Taylor said. "It became a historic preservation project."

Cumberland's canal refurbishments include rebuilding the western terminus of the C&O; Canal, near the Western Maryland Station Center, and rewatering about two miles of the canal. Mule-drawn barge rides also can be offered to visitors here, park officials said.

As planned, though, Canal Place will tie the C&O; Canal to other aspects of Cumberland's transportation history -- the railroad and the national highway. The project is seen as much as an effort at historical preservation as it is riverfront redevelopment and economic development.

Cumberland once was a transportation hub in the nation's westward expansion. First, wagon trains and then, the railroad used a natural gap in the Allegheny Mountains to ease the westward travel of settlers. America's first federally built road -- then known as the "National Road" -- was begun in Cumberland.

"This is a little hidden jewel that has been buried here for a long time," Mr. Taylor said. "We've all of a sudden discovered and realized that our history is unique. Nowhere else in the U.S. do we have these three elements of history tied so closely together."

The huge park and recreation area will replace a nondescript, blighted industrial area now along the Potomac River. Warehouses and old buildings will be replaced by extensive parkland and a mile-long scenic parkway parallel to the canal and the Potomac River.

"One of the most important things this project does is change the face of the riverfront," said Eric Tamulonis, a landscape architect and project director. "[The project] sees Cumberland as a tourism center and as the gateway for tourists to Western Maryland."

'Major undertaking'

A mix of federal, state, county and local dollars will pay for Canal Place development, Mr. Taylor said. In addition, the canal authority may float bonds to cover aspects of the project. Canal Place is expected to prompt millions of dollars in private development, too.

One small aspect of the project -- Station Square -- already has been completed -- using a mix of federal, state, county and local dollars. The $1.8 million project refurbished a parking lot and land adjacent to the Western Maryland Station Center with brick promenades, benches, picnic tables and decorative lights.

"It's a major undertaking," said Glenn Beall Jr., chairman of the Canal Place Authority, the quasi-public body charged with paying for the project. "It's really a wonderful cornerstone not only for economic development in Cumberland, but also for preservation of the area's history."

Mr. Taylor and others envision private development as a result of Canal Place, including hotels, restaurants and shops. Tourism officials are considering a transportation museum and other canal-related activities at the site.

"We almost can't believe something this scale is going to be in Cumberland," said Sharon Ennis Kazary, owner of the Inn at Walnut Bottom, a bed-and-breakfast inn near the canal.

"The irony is that the canal was doomed from the start as [a] business venture. But now, more than 100 years later, it'll find success as a tourist attraction."

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