Building the C&O Canal from Georgetown in Washington to Cumberland through rocky terrain was an engineering challenge the 1800s. To solve the problem, 74 lift locks were built along the 184.5-mile canal.
In its heyday, scores of mule-drawn boats made the slow journey up the "steps" of the 605-foot elevation each day. Eventually, the canal fell victim to competition from the B&O Railroad and to flooding. Today, the entire canal is preserved as the C&O Canal National Historical Park, and walkers, joggers, bikers and leashed dogs use the flat towpaths once trodden by mules.
In the Great Falls section of the park near Potomac in Montgomery County, park rangers take visitors on boat rides from April through October and re-enact a long-ago lifestyle. The rangers portray various fictional characters who could have lived when the canal flourished.
Though they may take three or four trips a day, the rangers know each audience is different. For instance, senior citizens might like to hear about history, and as the mule-drawn boats float up the canal, the rangers might talk about the Union's efforts to keep the canal open for transporting coal during the Civil War. To adult audiences intrigued by mechanics, they'll explain the detailed workings of the locks, which lifted barges of cargo up the canal's incline.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, "Hiram the Boatman" glances around the boat. He sees a Girl Scout troop and several families with children. He knows what to say as the lock fills with water and begins to gently float the boat upward: "Just think of this lock as a great big ol' bath tub. And we're the rubber duckie," he tells them.
The ranger has taken care to dress the part of Hiram. He wears woolen pants with suspenders, a vest and a straw hat. With an irrepressible grin, he weaves a story of canal life with a combination of role playing, anecdotes and historical facts aimed at his audience.
L "How many people on board are between the ages of 6 and 11?"
Several hands fly up. "If you were one of the captain's children, you'd be out on the towpath with the mules." He reminds them that, though they might be barefoot, the path is a soft one, paved with the "deposits" that the mules leave along the way. Giggles erupt at the thought.
He probably appeals to the fantasies of several children on board when describing how younger siblings were tethered to ** the barge. If a child fell overboard, the strap was just long enough to allow him to skim the water until someone got around to pulling him up again.
More giggles erupt when he asks for a child volunteer to demonstrate how to groom a mule. With several brushes and a harness, a child pretending to be a mule gets "groomed."
Throughout the 45-minute journey, the ranger's enthusiasm for his topic, as well as the grin, never wanes. He finally takes a break and sits down with a cup of water. The boat has made a turn in the canal and is lowered a second time through a lock.
Two girls approach him and extend their ticket stubs.
"Can we have your autograph?"
"Hiram" looks embarrassed and smiles at the adults who are watching. "Canal groupies," he says kindly. He carefully writes a message on each ticket.
"Does this happen often?" someone asks him.
"No, this is a first."
He's the only one who looks surprised by the request.
In addition to a history lesson, a visit to the C&O Canal Historical Park provides for a day of exercise. There are flat paths for walking and biking along the canal.
In mid-1992, the park will re-open a bridge that will take walkers over boulders to an island. From there, people can view the entire Great Falls from the Maryland side of the park. This walking area was destroyed during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. In the years since the storm, a variety of endangered plant species have flourished there. The new walkway protects this growth and provides visitors with a safe passage through an area known for treacherous rocks.
If you go . . .
Destination: C&O Canal National Historic Park, 11710
MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. Call (301) 299-3613.
Hours: The park is open from dawn to dusk every day except Christmas. Boat rides take place from mid-April to mid-October on Wednesday through Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. On Sundays, there is a 5 p.m. ride. From mid-April to June, school groups fill many of the weekday rides, though individuals may join a group if there is room. Group rates are available.
AAdmission: There is a $3 per vehicle entrance fee. The receipt is good for seven days for both the Maryland and Virginia side of the park. Boat fares: Adults, $5; seniors and children, $3.50.
Food: There is a concession stand near the visitors center. It sells hot dogs, drinks and snacks.
BDirections: Take Interstate 95, Interstate 295 or U.S. 29 South to Interstate 495 West. Take Exit 39 at Maryland Route 190 (River Road). Follow River Road to Potomac. Turn left on Falls Road and drive to the "T" intersection. Turn right on MacArthur Boulevard and drive to the park entrance.