Stormy days at the canal Resentment: A proposal to dredge the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal has the canal's neighbors grumbling.

December 01, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Along the banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, history has taught old-timers and newcomers all they need to know about expanding the scenic waterway.

The last major project three decades ago deepened the canal 5 feet and carved off a good part of the north side of Chesapeake City, leaving the U.S. Corps of Engineers with the lasting reputation as an "irresponsible neighbor." Since then, residents say, erosion, silting and pollution have provided disturbing testimony about the long-term impacts of dredging the canal.

"Something drastic has happened here since the canal was dredged," said Richard Noennich, a retired Dupont worker who lives on Elk River near the mouth of the canal.

But now, in the largest single project since the mid-1960s, the Corps -- and scores of Maryland politicians, maritime industry leaders and port officials -- want to deepen the canal from 35 feet 40 feet, to assure that massive steamships and barges can continue to safely use the waterway as a strategic short-cut between the Port of Baltimore and the North Atlantic.

In this conservative, rural community tucked away in Maryland's northeast corner, the latest dredging proposal has precipitated bitter resentment not only of big government, embodied by the Corps, but of another foe 70 miles to the south.

"Ninety-eight percent of the people here feel we're the doormat to Baltimore," said Walter "Ed" Jacobs, manager of Schaefer's Canal House restaurant, which sits along the canal in North Chesapeake City.

It is a familiar outcry by taxpayers from Montgomery to Allegany counties who have railed against expensive projects, such as Baltimore's Camden Yards and Convention Center, that have been touted as vital to the state's overall economic well-being.

Three-fourths of the estimated $84 million cost to dredge the canal from Pooles Island to the Delaware River will come from the federal government, which owns and operates the canal -- and the remainder from Maryland taxpayers.

"Baltimore is the dog that barks the loudest; this is our stadium issue," said Lee Vosters, who owns a large horse and sheep farm on a peninsula known as Randalia, which her family has inhabited since the 1600s. "The port of Baltimore is not a major port anymore. People in this area take exception to coming in and tearing up our backyard for an entity that doesn't even have its own house in order."

Indeed, the dredging is a classic, not-in-my backyard issue -- but in this case the backyard is a tree-lined channel, 1,000 feet wide at its waterline, that increasingly has become the focus of growing environmental concerns here.

Over the years, residents say, the ships' wakes have eroded the shoreline, forcing them to shore up their property with huge rocks and replace bulkheads under their piers. Beaches have been wiped out, trees uprooted.

"The results are in, and they're not good," Vosters said.

Furthermore, ballast discharged from ships passing through the canal creates a suspicious white foam; most people no longer swim in the canal.

Residents along the nearby rivers like the Sassafras, the Elk and the Bohemia say they're unable to navigate even small boats out of their marinas and piers at low tide because of heavy siltation that has resulted from dredging.

"As the dredging process gets more drastic, the environmental damage gets worse," said William Jeans, farm owner and president of the C&D Canal League. "It's the economics of Baltimore vs. the ecological well-being of the northern bay."

While the number of ships traveling to Baltimore has decreased significantly, the canal is still one of the world's busiest. Forty percent of all ships coming to Baltimore use the canal.

But port officials say that without dredging, the C&D will not be able to accommodate the larger ships now on the drawing board. Instead, they would be forced to loop around the Delmarva peninsula and make an expensive, 12-hour journey up the bay. State officials fear that many vessels would bypass Baltimore altogether.

"There's no question that the C&D canal is critical to us," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "It's vital that we keep it accessible, particularly with steamships becoming larger and larger."

Indeed, the waterway was built for commerce. As early as the 1600s, a Dutch envoy and surveyor, Augustine Herman, noted the narrow strip of land separating the Delaware River from the Chesapeake and suggested that a canal be sliced through it, reducing by nearly 300 miles the water journey between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Nearly two hundred years later, the canal opened -- in 1829 -- initially only 14 miles long, 10 feet deep and 36 feet wide along the channel's bottom. For years, teams of mules and horses trudged along a towpath, pulling freight and passenger barges, schooners and sloops through the canal.

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