A Labor of Love Restoration: Hundreds of volunteers turn out to repair flood-damaged C&O Canal National Historical Park. A walkway to a beautiful view should reopen July 4.

June 23, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- Art Mitchell is out here with a generator-powered hand drill on the first truly hot Saturday of spring, screwing 2-by-8-inch, rough-hewn rails onto 8-by-8 posts. 10: 45 a.m., even in the shade in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, his face is beaded with perspiration, his T-shirt wet through.

Mitchell, a statistician from Falls Church, Va., is working at Great Falls on a winding, 0.6-mile long walkway -- part boardwalk, part concrete-and-steel -- across adjoining Olmsted and Falls islands. avid mountain biker, he's ridden many miles in this park, which runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland.

"I use the trails a lot," Mitchell says quietly. That's why he felt compelled to join more than 50 volunteers laboring free on this particular day throughout the park to help offset yet another lesson for man from nature -- $20 million in damage from one of the Potomac River's worst floods.

Not far from Mitchell, another eight or nine men and women, most a lot older than his 27 years, also are assigned to walkway work. They find themselves, some for the first time, making concrete footings, neither neat nor easy work.

No one is complaining. Their mission is to advance by another day the reopening of the walkway that steers visitors from the tranquil towpath to a stunning portion of the Potomac River. Of the 4 million people who visit the park every year, the vast majority come to this spot, where the placid Potomac suddenly changes into a spectacular tumult of water and rock.

If more lumber arrives in time for more volunteers to complete the job, the walkway is scheduled to reopen July 4 -- a little National Park Service panache linking this newest "rebirth" to the canal's construction start July 4, 1828. That day, President John Quincy Adams likened a finished canal to Egypt's pyramids.

Reopening the walkway July 4 will be a wonder of sorts. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes peeled a different walkway off the Potomac islands. Replacing that one took 20 years; this time it will take less than six months.

The quick turnaround is attributed to improved design, luck -- and, of course, the volunteers who have been working Saturdays since the January flood.

The hundreds of volunteers willing to work here and elsewhere in the park have constituted an unexpected logistical headache for the National Park Service, to be sure.

"The public response to this flood has just been amazing, from the very start," says Gordon V. Gay, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the park.

They've come forward, he adds, because "People have discovered the canal and its near-wilderness environment, especially since another flood in 1985."

They've also been the silver lining to the devastation.

If park detractors and park-service workers didn't know it before, they know it now: People by the thousands truly love this place.

To grasp the underlying magic of the C&O Canal, walk along the towpath at Great Falls a couple of hundred yards toward Washington and turn a few paces onto Olmsted Island. Listen

Warblers chortling no cars no Capital Beltway. Many are the moments, especially midweek, when no man-made sounds at all mar this dollop of near-wilderness. You're out under the trees, among boulders, on rare, undisturbed terrain called a bedrock ,, terrace forest 16 or so miles from the White House.

And then, there's the water. On Olmsted and Falls islands, you're never unaware of water the Potomac, rushing, still brown with silt in the spring, crashing down narrow rock channels yards beneath your feet. Then you reach Great Falls. There, in a distance about two football fields across, the Potomac is a grumbling, plunging, whipping, mist-tossing, downright awesome and dangerous place.

Back on the towpath, you can follow the seemingly endless and tree-shaded lane where the mules and their tenders plodded as they pulled canal boats along with their loads of coal, lumber and grain. It's perfect for hikers, joggers, bikers, bird-watchers, cross-country skiers and campers.

The many quiet-water segments of the canal draw canoeists. Fishermen frequent its watered areas. And kayakers love the rough, scenic sections of the nearby Potomac.

"It's unbelievable -- you could be in the middle of Canada somewhere," says Robert Fina, a kayaker and canoeist from Alexandria, Va.

The canal, of course, wasn't built for recreation or respite from urban life. It was built for commerce. Inspired by New York's storied Erie Canal, the C&O took 22 years to complete and is justifiably called a miracle of 19th-century engineering.

The canal not only carried its boats across multiple intersecting waterways via aqueducts, but in Allegany County cut nearly two-thirds of a mile straight through a mountain -- no one who walks the towpath through the Paw Paw Tunnel forgets the experience.

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