Historians covet canal boats

Park service weighs cost of restoring rare original vessels

June 14, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- A rare archaeological find has triggered an all-too-common scramble for cash by the National Park Service.

Joseph Bilicki struck pay dirt this spring under a highway overpass when his backhoe uncovered large hunks of two 90-foot-long boats that were used to haul goods up and down the C&O Canal in the 1800s. He also found the remains of a large boatyard.

The discovery raised the pulses of canal historians and preservationists who have been denied the opportunity to study one of the original mule-powered barges. Only three replicas exist.

"It's a very compelling story for Cumberland," says Bilicki, an archaeologist from John Milner Associates in Virginia, which is under contract with the State Highway Administration. "Most of the canal boats were built there, but there's been no documentation of the boat building industry."

In its brief heyday more than a century ago, 500 canal boats moved the 184 miles between Cumberland and Washington, often so close together that you could walk from deck to deck without breaking stride.

The flat-bottom boats were built of Georgia pine with oak bottoms. Primarily used to carry coal east, they also hauled flour, corn and finished lumber west. Just 14 feet wide, the boats squeezed through 74 locks that gently lifted and lowered them to compensate for the 605-foot elevation difference between mountainous Cumberland and almost sea-level Washington.

"Of all the boats on the canal, you'd think some might have survived. But this is it. That's why this find is so significant," says Douglas Faris, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historic Park.

Restoration considered

However, like most federal park superintendents, Faris doesn't have the money to protect and restore his treasure, which having been re-exposed to the elements, even briefly, began to deteriorate.

Faris says he will meet July 15 with the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority to review Bilicki's report and decide what to do.

The authority was formed by the Maryland legislature in 1993 to aid restoration of the western terminus of the canal in Cumberland.

The national park has the replicas of the canal boats: two at Georgetown and Great Falls offer rides and a third sits in a cradle on land 10 miles east of Cumberland.

For Richard Pfefferkorn, executive director of Canal Place, having a shot at displaying a canal boat is a double-edged sword.

This fall, he is moving the 23-year-old replica the Cumberland from its cradle to the site of the archaeological find, a 6-acre patch of dirt beneath Interstate 68 that is to become Crescent Lawn, a park on the Potomac River.

"To get a real one is exciting, but can we afford it?" he asks. "It's going to be very costly to excavate and restore the boat, upwards of $500,000. Is that money best spent elsewhere?"

Still, Faris holds out hope. "We would love to take one of the original boats and display it. It would add so much to the public's understanding of the period."

Colorful history

The canal had a tumultuous life before wheezing to a stop.

Digging for the canal began in Washington in 1828, but by the time crews reached Cumberland in 1850, the rival B&O Railroad was deeply entrenched and pushing its freight line westward.

From 1870 to the mid-1880s, the canal made money -- not a lot, but enough to satisfy investors. However, its days were numbered.

Flooded by debt and a catastrophic winter storm, the C&O Canal stopped operating in 1924. Boats were pried apart for their lumber or scuttled for fill.

"Nobody thought about it as a historical item," says Mike High, author of the 1997 book "The C&O Canal Companion." "They probably thought of it as an oddity that had stopped working."

High says rumors have hinted at the location of abandoned canal boats "but there was very little to show for it."

Found at last

That was before Bilicki's survey of Crescent Lawn. Using Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from the late 1800s, he located the ruins of a five-building complex, the Weld and Sheridan Boat Building and Repair Yard.

Bilicki dug 21 trenches an average of 45 feet long and 6 feet deep.

One pit provided a window to an unmarked, unnamed boat basin, where boats filled with coal would turn around for their trip back to Georgetown.

He says he exposed a section of the first boat, enough to see the keel, floor planks, cross braces and part of the outer hull.

He then uncovered a smaller section of the second boat, about 100 yards away, before he stopped for fear of damaging it. Because it rests against a wooden bulkhead, Bilicki believes it may be better preserved than the other one. He covered both boats to prevent further deterioration.

Archaeologists, such as American University Professor Richard Dent, caution that the price to excavate and preserve a boat might well exceed its value.

"I don't know if a canal boat as a centerpiece to a park is a viable tourist attraction," he muses. "But history is big money these days."

High believes Faris and other officials should err on the side of history.

"The last thing the park service needs is something else to care for. But if they blow this chance, they blow it for posterity," said High.

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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