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C&O; Canal draws millions of visitors along its 184 miles; Hikers and bikers make extensive use of towpath dating from 1828


CUMBERLAND - It was a grand scheme to help unite a new nation: build a canal that would link Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River.

But this is as far as it got.

Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began in 1828 near Washington.

Within 10 years, the C&O; was supposed to meet the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, a total of 365 miles. After 22 years and at least $14 million, it was only completed to Cumberland, just over halfway.

The 184.5-mile-long Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a monument to a canal that never reached its destination and to a transportation technology rendered obsolete by railroads long before it was completed.

But in addition to history, the national park offers an appealing combination of recreation and natural beauty as it follows the Potomac River from the scenic mountains of Western Maryland down to sea level at Washington.

"It is one of the major long-distance hiking-biking opportunities found anywhere on the East Coast," said Doug Faris, park superintendent. "It's easy to hike and bike. We get a broad range of people, from the very young to elderly folk, who use the canal routinely."

In operation 75 years

Despite its shortcomings, the C&O; was an operating canal for nearly 75 years. It was the nation's sixth-longest canal, Faris said.

The C&O; is significant because "it is the most intact canal system remaining from the 36 big canals constructed in the United States up until the 1850s," Faris said, noting that the park has 74 canal locks, 10 of the 11 original canal aqueducts and 1,276 structures relating to the canal's history.

Whenever the federal government commits itself to establishing a national park, you'd assume Congress would provide enough funding to make sure that park remains a world-class showcase.

Unfortunately, that's not the case with the C&O; Canal. The flood-ravaged Monocacy Aqueduct, a once-graceful span considered one of the park's crown jewels of 19th-century engineering, has gone unrestored for more than 25 years. Many worry the next big flood will destroy it. Even a section of canal towpath, the park's key recreational feature, has been missing for decades.

Two years ago, floods on the Potomac caused $65 million in park damage. Faris said $23 million has been allocated to repair top-priority items. "We still need more than $40 million to repair it all,"he said.

Most of the old canal is dry and nature has reclaimed much of it. Forests have practically rendered invisible what had been a 60-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep waterway. In some spots, stone walls of locks lean precariously, as if about to collapse. In others, walls already have crumbled.

Faris said some people would like to see the entire canal restored to operating condition, as it was before being abandoned in 1924. But he estimated doing that would cost "a half-billion to three-quarters of a billion dollars."

Flooding a problem

Floods, which ultimately put the canal out of business, would cause much more damage to a rebuilt canal, making maintenance "prohibitively expensive."

"There's no real burning need to have all the canal rewatered," Faris said. "We can illustrate what it looked like by having small sections watered."

Only about 30 miles of the C&O; normally has water in it. Some sections, such as at Hancock and Williamsport are less than a mile long. Normally, the longest watered section is 22 miles, from Washington to Violettes Lock. But not even all of that has water since the two 1996 floods heavily damaged the canal. But Faris said water will be back in it by spring.

Highlights of the canal park include walking through the canal's dark Paw Paw Tunnel, which is more than half a mile long; riding a mule-powered canal boat through an operating lock at Great Falls Tavern, and visiting Fort Frederick, a reconstructed 18th-century stone fort.

Despite being surrounded by rugged mountains, the canal's 74 locks only raised boats 605 feet. So the towpath a one-lane-wide unpaved road is fairly level for walking, jogging or bicycling.

Some rangers complain too many people approach the canal as a challenge to be conquered, rather than a resource to be explored and enjoyed. "People bike it in three days more than 60 miles a day which is foolish because you're not going to see much," said ranger Paul Apple. "I'd recommend spending at least a week."

The park is used by up to 4 million people annually. The first 14 miles between Washington and Great Falls are the most heavily visited section. In winter, though, attendance drops off, and not all the visitors centers are open every day.

"As long as the weather holds up, we get a fair number of hikers and bikers," Apple said. "When it snows, we get a fair number of cross-country skiers."

"It really dies down here in wintertime," said ranger Martin Gallery. "I've seen areas of the towpath that have snow on them for a month and not seen a single footprint. Winter draws people who really want some solitude."

One entrance to Paw Paw Tunnel is covered in winter to prevent destructive ice from forming inside, which would be unsafe for visitors and hard on the tunnel's 5.8 million bricks, Apple said. But the cover has an access door, so visitors can walk through the tunnel all winter.

The 3,118-foot-long Paw Paw Tunnel may be the C&O;'s most significant engineering feature. Cutting through a ridge saved six miles of canal-building, but the tunnel became a major barrier. It was supposed to take two years to build and cost $33,500. Instead it took 12 years and cost $600,000. "An unknown number of men died building the tunnel," Apple said.

Walking on the wooden towpath through the dark tunnel, which still has water in it, is thrilling. Flashlights are recommended. Apple said most of the tunnel's railing is original, with scars from tow ropes still visible.

About six miles below Williamsport, a 1.5-mile section of the towpath is missing. In that area the dammed river served as the canal and the towpath ran along the base of a cliff. It was eroded by floodwaters many years ago.

"The floods of '72 and '85 and '96 just made it worse," Faris said. "It's going to cost millions of dollars to fix that segment so it will withstand floods. We don't want to do anything that's not going to be sustainable, because certainly there will be more floods."

Until then, those following the canal path must take a marked detour on country roads, adding nearly 5 miles to the trip.

Ambitious restoration plan

The state and National Park Service have ambitious plans to restore and rewater more than two miles of the canal and boat basin and offer boat rides where the C&O; ends in the heart of Cumberland.

Now, a wooden sign, a stone milepost marker and a wide green lawn mark the canal's western terminus. An Interstate 68 highway bridge passes directly over the dry canal basin.

Faris said restoring just those two-plus miles of the canal will cost at least $12 million.

Between Hancock and Williamsport, C&O; Canal passes through 560-acre Fort Frederick State Park. The large stone fort was constructed on high ground above the river in 1756 during the French and Indian War. It was the only stone fort built by a colony rather than the British.

Never attacked by the French, it was occupied by the Maryland militia and served as a supply base on Maryland's frontier. During the American Revolution, it became a prison for Hessian (German) and British soldiers. It was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War.

Its thick walls and two barracks have been rebuilt to their original appearance. The barracks house historic displays.

The best part of the canal boat ride at Great Falls Tavern is going through wooden locks that raise the boat at the beginning of the ride and lower it at the end. The second best part is ranger Hank Mallery, who sang folk songs, played instruments and told passengers about the canal.

The passenger-carrying boat is not historically accurate. No original canal boats exist, although the park hopes to have a replica built, possibly at Williamsport.

Cargo-carrying canal boats were up to 95 feet long and 14.5 feet wide, only 6 inches narrower than canal locks.

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