Stormy days at the canal Resentment: A proposal to dredge the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal has the canal's neighbors grumbling.


Along the banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, history has taught old-timers and newcomers all they need to know about expanding the scenic waterway.

The last major project three decades ago deepened the canal 5 feet and carved off a good part of the north side of Chesapeake City, leaving the U.S. Corps of Engineers with the lasting reputation as an "irresponsible neighbor." Since then, residents say, erosion, silting and pollution have provided disturbing testimony about the long-term impacts of dredging the canal.

"Something drastic has happened here since the canal was dredged," said Richard Noennich, a retired Dupont worker who lives on Elk River near the mouth of the canal.

But now, in the largest single project since the mid-1960s, the Corps -- and scores of Maryland politicians, maritime industry leaders and port officials -- want to deepen the canal from 35 feet 40 feet, to assure that massive steamships and barges can continue to safely use the waterway as a strategic short-cut between the Port of Baltimore and the North Atlantic.

In this conservative, rural community tucked away in Maryland's northeast corner, the latest dredging proposal has precipitated bitter resentment not only of big government, embodied by the Corps, but of another foe 70 miles to the south.

"Ninety-eight percent of the people here feel we're the doormat to Baltimore," said Walter "Ed" Jacobs, manager of Schaefer's Canal House restaurant, which sits along the canal in North Chesapeake City.

It is a familiar outcry by taxpayers from Montgomery to Allegany counties who have railed against expensive projects, such as Baltimore's Camden Yards and Convention Center, that have been touted as vital to the state's overall economic well-being.

Three-fourths of the estimated $84 million cost to dredge the canal from Pooles Island to the Delaware River will come from the federal government, which owns and operates the canal -- and the remainder from Maryland taxpayers.

"Baltimore is the dog that barks the loudest; this is our stadium issue," said Lee Vosters, who owns a large horse and sheep farm on a peninsula known as Randalia, which her family has inhabited since the 1600s. "The port of Baltimore is not a major port anymore. People in this area take exception to coming in and tearing up our backyard for an entity that doesn't even have its own house in order."

Indeed, the dredging is a classic, not-in-my backyard issue -- but in this case the backyard is a tree-lined channel, 1,000 feet wide at its waterline, that increasingly has become the focus of growing environmental concerns here.

Over the years, residents say, the ships' wakes have eroded the shoreline, forcing them to shore up their property with huge rocks and replace bulkheads under their piers. Beaches have been wiped out, trees uprooted.

"The results are in, and they're not good," Vosters said.

Furthermore, ballast discharged from ships passing through the canal creates a suspicious white foam; most people no longer swim in the canal.

Residents along the nearby rivers like the Sassafras, the Elk and the Bohemia say they're unable to navigate even small boats out of their marinas and piers at low tide because of heavy siltation that has resulted from dredging.

"As the dredging process gets more drastic, the environmental damage gets worse," said William Jeans, farm owner and president of the C&D; Canal League. "It's the economics of Baltimore vs. the ecological well-being of the northern bay."

While the number of ships traveling to Baltimore has decreased significantly, the canal is still one of the world's busiest. Forty percent of all ships coming to Baltimore use the canal.

But port officials say that without dredging, the C&D; will not be able to accommodate the larger ships now on the drawing board. Instead, they would be forced to loop around the Delmarva peninsula and make an expensive, 12-hour journey up the bay. State officials fear that many vessels would bypass Baltimore altogether.

"There's no question that the C&D; canal is critical to us," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "It's vital that we keep it accessible, particularly with steamships becoming larger and larger."

Indeed, the waterway was built for commerce. As early as the 1600s, a Dutch envoy and surveyor, Augustine Herman, noted the narrow strip of land separating the Delaware River from the Chesapeake and suggested that a canal be sliced through it, reducing by nearly 300 miles the water journey between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Nearly two hundred years later, the canal opened -- in 1829 -- initially only 14 miles long, 10 feet deep and 36 feet wide along the channel's bottom. For years, teams of mules and horses trudged along a towpath, pulling freight and passenger barges, schooners and sloops through the canal.

Over the years, as ships grew longer, wider and heavier, the C&D; was expanded, ultimately to 450 feet wide along the channel's bottom and 35 feet deep. Periodically, it has been dredged just to maintain that depth.

While the canal was built to facilitate movement of ships, it has also been an integral part of the community here. Children once swam in its waters or rode horseback along its beaches. Before they were old enough to obtain drivers' licenses, teen-agers crossed the canal by boat to date.

Today, the canal area is no longer just a haven for summer retreats and estates. Hundreds of modest year-round houses line the banks. It is a popular recreational area for jet skiers, cabin cruisers and motor boats.

Many earn their livelihoods because of the canal. Split in half by the waterway, the little community of Chesapeake City literally grew up along its banks. Dozens of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and little shops dot its streets, drawing thousands of tourists each year. It is one of few spots between Baltimore and Delaware River where massive steamships can be seen up close.

"It's definitely an attraction," said 26-year-old Lairsey duPont, owner of a Chesapeake City boutique. "But we're not against the canal. We're against it snowballing."

And so, "Deep Enough-Wide Enough" has become their motto.

Opposition to the latest canal dredging spans socio-economic brackets from the duPonts, whose sprawling farms sit along the Bohemia River, to retired Dupont workers, like Noennich, who bought a parcel of waterfront land years ago before prices skyrocketed.

"This cuts across our demographic profile," says longtime environmental activist Millie Ludwig. "It's not all yuppies and large land owners."

"A lot of residents have a heightened awareness of what's happened over the past 25 years, and there's a lot of animosity toward the Corps," she said.

Since the federal government purchased the canal in 1919 for $2.5 million, the Corps has maintained and operated it.

"Around here, the Corps is synonymous with bad guy in this area," said Corps resident engineer James R. Tomlin. "It owns the bridge, the water, the land. So anything that goes wrong is the Corps' fault."

Tomlin said the Corps tries to minimize environmental impact from maintaining the canal. And he says canal dredging is often blamed for problems such as the buildup of silt in the rivers, though residents discount the impact of Tropical Storm Agnes in In addition, he said, the canal has produced ecological benefits over the years. Far more herons, for instance, now inhabit the C&D; area today because of bountiful fish in the water.

Three decades ago, however, the Corps took houses, a cemetery and a church on the north side of town to widen the canal. Many fear that the latest project is merely a prelude to further widening that would take part of the town again.

Indeed, bay pilots who guide ships in and out of Baltimore's harbor say the C&D;'s dangerously narrow bends threaten the safety of the larger vessels.

"Folks here are suspicious," Jacobs said. "Is this just a foot in the door for widening it again? Right now they say 'no,' but 30 years ago they said 'no' too."

"I understand their fears given what happened 30 years ago," Tomlin said. "The town wasn't consulted back in those days. But the [widening] was necessary to have a major sea-level shipping channel." This past summer, the Corps held public hearings on the proposed dredging.

Residents, however, complain that the Corps hasn't addressed their concerns, and they dispute many of the findings reached in a $5 million feasibility study, which concluded that the project was both environmentally and economically sound.

Their opposition has sparked town meetings, stories in the Cecil Whig, the formation of the Canal League headed by biologists and environmentalists, and a political campaign targeted at Congress.

The project is slated to begin within two years, but funds still must be approved by the federal government.

"Hopefully, friends and friends of friends will be able to reach the right people," duPont said.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, urged the Corps to further study some of the issues that worry residents.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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