Floating through American history

February 10, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

THE MULE'S name was Emily, an appellation that immediately found favor with my young daughter, her namesake. She was a strong, sleek, doe-eyed, gentle creature that seemed to belie the obdurate character often ascribed to her kind (the mule, I mean; the child is another story).

Her chocolate-brown coat was curried as smooth as that of any thoroughbred, her muzzle contentedly buried in a feedbag as she stood tethered to the rail. The jenny scarcely noted the tentative petting by amused children, pursuing her oat break with singularity of purpose. Soon enough it would be show time again.

It was not a taxing performance. Emily the quadruped slowly clomped down the tree-shaded dirt path, the towline dragging from her yoke and harness as she pulled without seeming effort the heavy wooden barge and its cargo of enchanted passengers.

Like the National Park Rangers who walk the mules, maneuver the barge through locks and down the canal and collect the fares, Emily is a part of living history on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The mule-powered float along this section of the canal in the national historical park near Potomac, Md., (and at downstream Georgetown) gives thousands of visitors every year an exciting opportunity to experience what was an important passage in American history, even if a limited success.

The C&O's tale, spun by the bargemaster-ranger, is one of long-held dreams and of financial failure, of technological obsolescence and corporate takeovers.

The 184-mile span of locks and towpaths was conceived as a pioneering transportation link between the Chesapeake and the Midwest at the turn of the 19th century. But its utility was rapidly overtaken by the railroads, which reached the canal's inland terminus of Cumberland years before the final stretch of the C&O was completed in 1850.

Live mule, iron horse

The barge system operated until 1924, hauling iron and coal and grain long after its live mules' advantage passed to the iron horse. The railroad finally acquired the canal, largely for its land.

Nature was always an unreliable partner of the C&O Canal, which parallels the Potomac River. Treacherous floods and storms washed away towpaths, eroded and silted canals, destroyed locks and buildings. The water that was the lifeline of the transport system was also its frequent nemesis.

That reminder of the canal's vulnerability came with this winter's ice storm and subsequent flooding that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

First projections were that worst damaged lower canal areas, near Washington, might take years to be restored. This disaster follows last year's shortened barge season due to budget cuts and congressional efforts to further cut national-parks spending.

Despite its popularity among Washington powers, and an estimated 3.5 million visitors annually, it took years to restore the C&O from the last big flood a decade ago. This time, damages are said to be five times as great.

The national park was created largely through the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose hike along the lTC entire length of the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland 40 years ago captured the spreading public interest in the environment. Hikers, campers, mountain bikers and other recreational users are its principal supporters.

But the C&O Canal is also a historical park, preserving a vivid example of how the American frontier was pushed westward. The working canal and lift locks, the lockhouses and towpaths need to be restored, rather than returning the setting to nature. It's a national heritage. Emily and her family are waiting.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

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