A perspective on 19th century

Legacy: The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal's landmarks still bear witness to its troubled history.

January 31, 1999|By RANDY KRAFT | RANDY KRAFT,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

The construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was plagued by delays, legal battles, labor problems, diseases and lack of funds.

Rangers at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park note you can tell the canal was running out of money by the material used to build lock keepers' houses. Near Washington, they are made of stone. In the mid-section, they are brick. Close to Cumberland, they are made of wood, which is why few remain.

Park Superintendent Doug Faris said the federal government provided much of the construction money. ``The canal often is referred to as the first national project. This was a big experiment. It happened when the federal government was still in its infancy,'' he said.

Engineering and alignment work were done all the way to Pittsburgh, Faris said. The canal company asked Pennsylvania for $500,000 to begin the western end, but that financial assistance never came, and the canal got no farther than Cumberland, only about half its intended length.

The canal's groundbreaking was July 4, 1828, near Washington, with President John Quincy Adams doing the honors. On the same day in Baltimore, inaugural ceremonies were held for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

``Railroads were the competition from day one,'' said ranger Rita Knox. The B&O reached Cumberland eight years before the C&O. By the time the canal got to Cumberland, the B&O was in Chicago. The railroad was faster and more efficient. Canal traffic stopped when water froze in winter.

Although the canal was profitable only in the 1870s, it did create a transportation link that benefited towns and commerce in the Potomac basin. At its peak, more than 550 boats, most made in Cumberland, operated on it. Their main cargo was coal, but they also carried grain, cement, building stone, lumber, produce and whiskey.

The B&O eventually acquired the canal. The federal government later acquired it from the railroad.

In 1954, after the Park Service proposed building a scenic auto parkway on top of the canal, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas spearheaded an effort to save the canal corridor as a park. He invited newspaper editors who supported the parkway idea to join him in hiking the entire canal.

That hike marked a turning point in efforts to preserve the C&O. It became a national monument in 1961 and a national historical park in 1971. Every five years, the C&O Canal Association sponsors a hike to commemorate Douglas' hike. The next one will be April 18 through May 1.

The park service also hopes to have a major celebration of the canal in 2000 to mark the 150th anniversary of its completion.

About the park

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which runs from Washington to Cumberland,operates visitors centers at Georgetown and in Maryland at Great Falls Tavern, Williamsport, Hancock and Cumberland.

The most popular visitors center is at Great Falls, 14 miles from Washington. It is staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round (closed Christmas). There is a $4-per-vehicle entrance fee.

Hancock's visitors center is closed Wednesdays and Thursdays until May. Williamsport's is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Visitors centers at Cumberland and Georgetown are open only Saturdays and Sundays until May.

The park can provide a list of several hiking and biking trips, and mile-by-mile guidebooks can be purchased at visitors centers. (It's almost impossible to get lost on the canal towpath, because each mile is marked with a post.)

Hiker-biker overnight campsites for primitive tent camping are about every file miles between Swains Lock above Great Falls Tavern and Evitts Creek near Cumberland. Each spot has a half-dozen campsites. They include portable toilets, water pumps and fire rings with grills.

The park has 19 public boat ramp areas for fishing and boating access on the Potomac River.

Canoeing is possible between Georgetown and Violettes Lock. Canoeists must portage around locks. Canoes can be rented at Swains Lock, Fletcher's Boathouse and Thompson's Boat Center.

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