Clinton, volunteers clean up on C&O Canal He, Gore celebrate Earth Day by removing debris at Great Falls

April 23, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GREAT FALLS -- Three months after post-blizzard flooding devastated the C&O Canal National Historical Park, volunteers have helped the National Park Service make passable most of the 184.5-mile towpath that hugs the waterway from Washington to Cumberland in Western Maryland.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined in the cleanup effort yesterday and then used popular Great Falls in Montgomery County as the backdrop for an Earth Day message.

The president, dressed in a denim shirt and khaki pants, and the vice president, wearing jeans and cowboy boots, yesterday joined members of the Montgomery County Conservation Corps to haul logs and branches from a pile of debris washed up by the flood.

Later, President Clinton, who had returned from a round-the-world trip just hours earlier, told a crowd of about 200 volunteers, park employees and elected officials that unlike many of the the splendors he saw on his journey, the canal, the towpath and the park are accessible to everyone.

"This belongs to all the American people," said Mr. Clinton, as the Potomac's waters rushed toward the falls behind him. "And we have to dedicate ourselves to making sure that, as long as there is an America, there will be a national park system with these treasures there, for every single citizen of this country."

President Clinton also praised the volunteers who have turned out to help clean up and repair the canal every weekend since the flood.

"We got just a tremendous response from the public," Gordon Gay, chief of visitor services at the park, said of the cleanup. "Up to 5,000 people have responded with offers to help work."

But the park is still at least two years and $16 million away from being fully restored, according to park officials. In all, 6.4 miles of the towpath are closed in damaged areas.

Record snowfalls and heavy rain in January caused the Potomac River to overflow its banks on Jan. 20, flooding most of the park.

The rushing ice-choked water raked trees, knocked out several chunks of the towpath and left deposits of mud and debris as high as 20 feet along the canal. The flooding also damaged locks, lock houses and other historic structures in the park.

The public response surprised Mr. Gay, who remembers the aftermath of a similarly damaging flood in 1985, when the park service had to aggressively solicit help from the community.

"It's just astounding to me," Mr. Gay said. "This time while the water was still going down, people started calling us and offering to help and sending money."

Officials estimate that $20 million is needed to restore the park to its former condition.

So far Congress has appropriated $2 million for repairs and cleanup, while Maryland and Montgomery County together have contributed about $1 million. Corporations, individuals and the National Park Foundation have contributed another $1 million. The National Park Service has asked Congress for another $16 million for the restoration effort.

With little emergency cash on hand to cover the cost of immediate repairs, the Park Service has relied heavily on donations and weekend volunteers to clear debris and haul fill dirt to patch parts of the towpath, Mr. Gay said. The costliest parts of the restoration are still to come.

The Park Service needs to purchase more dirt to replace what was washed away from the towpath.

At Great Falls, workers will have to replace parts of the wooden boardwalks that gave visitors safe access to views of the Potomac. Near Harpers Ferry, a half-mile section of the towpath was washed away.

Gary Petrichick, of Belmont, N.Y., is a park supporter who wants to see it fully restored.

"I found the canal and fell in love with it," said the 58-year-old retired community planner who is president of the C&O Canal Association, a preservationist organization. "The history, the nature aspect, the engineering. It's all so unique in the National Park system."

Ken Rollins, 78, a member of the association who lived near one of the lock houses in Montgomery County for 30 years before moving to Virginia, described the canal's effect on people as "magic."

"Nobody doesn't like the C&O Canal," said Mr. Rollins.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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