Echo Of The Industrial Revolution

The restored Monocacy Aqueduct is a secluded piece of history in a serene setting

Maryland Journal

July 11, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

DICKERSON - The trip started in 21st-century Maryland, but there was this strange turn down Mouth of Monocacy Road in Montgomery County, across some railroad tracks and through a canopy of trees, into a clearing. What place is this?

Scenes like this show up in European paintings, old ones mostly, not least because the Europeans built plenty of stone bridges similar to the Monocacy Aqueduct. Surrounded by woods and grassy embankments, the aqueduct spans the Monocacy River in a rhythm of seven pale stone arches, restored recently to look much as it did when coal, wheat and flour moved quietly along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at the pace of a walking mule.

A recent weekday finds the place at the border of northern Montgomery and southern Frederick counties mostly deserted. Except for the occasional jogger, cyclist or walker, it's you, the birds, the breeze, the deer rummaging through woods. True, CSX freight rumbles occasionally along the railroad bridge a short way upriver, and little outboards do propel runabouts along the Monocacy. Airliners thousands of feet overhead are loud and frequent enough, probably headed for Dulles Airport. Mostly, though, you can hear your thoughts.

"It's just a peaceful, nice place to go," said Jon Utz of Germantown, who stopped by with his 5-year-old son, Noah. "My wife and I used to come by here more regularly for walks. ... It's just a nice setting."

As Utz watched from the aqueduct's stone towpath, Noah examined the very low wooden rails next to the canal trough, then squatted low, as if to begin climbing into the trough - roughly a 5-foot drop.

"Don't jump down there, it's too high," Utz said to Noah.

Noah promptly jumped. He landed safely on the new concrete surface, scored to resemble wooden planks and fitted now with drains that were not there when the trough carried water.

Water over water

Funny to think about it, Utz said - a bridge that carries water over water.

"We like the C&O Canal in general," Utz said. "I like to think about the history of it, what it was like when the canal was operating."

Thanks to the just-completed Monocacy Aqueduct restoration, that imaginative leap is not hard to make.

When the restored aqueduct was dedicated in late May - marking the completion of a $6.4 million federal project that took nearly three years - the structure looked much as it did in its best days in the 19th century, minus water in the trough, canal boats and mules clip-clopping along the stone towpath.

Built between 1829 and 1833, the aqueduct today looks simultaneously antique and fresh. Think of a restored old master painting emerging from behind a veil of yellowed glaze. The aqueduct shed a lattice of unsightly steel braces that had partially masked its face since 1975, when the Federal Highway Administration took steps to keep the thing from falling apart.

Storms and saboteurs

Confederate saboteurs tried to blow the bridge up twice during the Civil War, but water and neglect ultimately took a heavier toll.

In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes sent floodwaters and heavy debris crashing down into the aqueduct, ripping out an iron railing and supporting stones, weakening the downriver side. The highway agency made what temporary fixes it could, bracing the structure, grouting cracks, half-filling the canal trough with earth, installing internal steel support rods and building a drainage field.

A flood in 1996 made matters worse, but by then, thanks largely to the C&O Canal Association, momentum was building behind complete restoration. In 1998, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Monocacy Aqueduct on its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States. In 2001, Congress allocated $6.4 million to restore the aqueduct.

One of 11 aqueducts along the 184.5-mile length of the C&O Canal - nine of which are intact - the Monocacy is by far the largest. In its infancy, the 516-foot aqueduct was the longest bridge in the United States.

"It was one of the most impressive structures of the Industrial Revolution when it was completed in 1833," said Robert J. Kapsch, who took charge of the restoration for the National Park Service and just published a detailed account in a short book, Monocacy Aqueduct on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

That distinction did not last long, Kapsch said. The rush of industrial expansion brought further dazzling developments that soon left behind the canal and the aqueduct, which Kapsch said can be seen as a "monument to the competition between the C&O and the B&O, between the canal and the railroad."

The canal lost, of course. Progress stepped lightly thereafter on this spot just east of where the Monocacy flows into the Potomac, much to the benefit of today's visitors.

`Close, but ... quiet'

"It's close, but it's quiet. It's a great place to take a 7-year-old biking," said Kathleen Cleveland of Frederick, who had cycled in with her son, Sean, from Nolands Ferry, a few miles up the Potomac.

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