Aqueduct joins list for endangered Monocacy span among 11 historic U.S. sites considered in peril

June 15, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The secret is out.

To the delight of historians and hikers and the dismay of some fishermen, the C&O Canal's Monocacy Aqueduct will be put on national display today as a place preservationists say must be saved.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will stand this morning beside the stone structure that spans the Monocacy River and proclaim it one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country.

The list, developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is in its 10th year. It is largely symbolic -- no money or promises are attached -- but it focuses the attention of Congress and the public on sites that are in peril.

"The aqueduct is like something that's been in the attic," said Carl Linden, a political science professor at George Washington University who lobbied for its inclusion. "It's a family heirloom, but everyone has forgotten it's there."

A network of steel trusses, timbers and turnbuckles envelope the 165-year-old aqueduct like orthodontics, a makeshift system installed by the National Park Service after Hurricane Agnes clawed away pieces of the masonry in 1972. Recently, divers found shifting and weakening of the riverbed around the aqueduct's piers.

Restoration is estimated to cost $5 million. Supporters have raised about $100,000.

The aqueduct was built by Irish and Welsh immigrants to carry canal barges 560 feet over the river from Montgomery County to Frederick County.

The blocks of white and pink quartz quarried from the foot of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain withstood an assault by Confederate soldiers armed with dynamite on their way to Antietam.

Monocacy Aqueduct is considered by many to be one of the two engineering jewels remaining along the C&O Canal towpath -- the other being the Paw Paw Tunnel in Allegany County.

"It expresses the heroic enterprise that is so much a part of America," Linden said.

But it also is off the beaten path, too long a way for a day hike from the popular Great Falls Visitor Center and miles from any major road.

"It sits out there in isolated, solitary beauty," explained former Maryland Congressman Gilbert Gude, a longtime advocate. "It doesn't have a constituency."

Gude, 74, has spent more than 30 years as the guardian critic and friend of the canal.

As a member of Congress, he was instrumental in getting the 185-mile path that hugs the Potomac River declared a national park in 1971.

Now, Gude wants to see his "shoestring park" kept intact.

"If you're going to have the canal as a historic site, the aqueducts, towpath and canal are all part of the same fabric," he insisted. "You can't let a piece go here and a piece go there."

If the aqueduct crumbles, the park will cease being a continuous path from the nation's capital to the Appalachian Mountains, Linden warned.

"Each community likes its part of the canal and lobbies for it, but they have to realize that if they lose the aqueduct, they lose the park," he said.

The new notoriety will come at a price, however.

Fishermen who gather as the sun rises and sets to dangle their lines into the river lamented the loss of what had been their secret fishing hole.

"I suppose it couldn't last," sighed a middle-aged man from Columbia who would not give his name because he had slipped away from his lawn-mowing chores Saturday.

"It takes a long time to find just the right spot," he said to the nods from other refugees of domestic responsibility.

But fisherman Joe Claxton of Jefferson said he wouldn't mind sharing his favorite spot of 14 years.

Claxton, the father of two young daughters, said he welcomed improvements that would attract more families to the aqueduct, boat ramp and surrounding park.

"It's nice just at dusk to stand and listen to the owls talking back and forth," he said.

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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