Water will reflow in portion of C&O Canal, and officials believe tourists will follow

Hopes float on refilling waterway to revive area

May 11, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

CUMBERLAND -- Water will soon flow again in a section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal here, decades after the industrial age tromped through and the big trench was filled with dirt and vanished altogether. Progress lately marches in Teva sandals and Reeboks in a city hoping to lure tourists to the waterside.

The brand name for this end of the historic 184 1/2 -mile C&O course is "Canal Place," the sort of urban reclamation project familiar to anyone who knows Camden Yards, Harborplace or Faneuil Hall. Where men once loaded canal boats with tons of coal, visitors are invited to stroll and stop for a meal or an ice cream cone.

Refilling a quarter-mile stretch of the canal this week is meant to sweeten the attraction. It's also a step toward a day envisioned several years from now when a canal boat will again be tugged out of Cumberland by mule teams clip-clopping along the towpath, heavy this time not with cargo but with paying passengers.

"Rewatering the canal is really the centerpiece of this whole project," says Richard M. Pfefferkorn, executive director of the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority, who will be among those on hand for a ceremony Saturday marking the milestone.

It's all a piece of a larger effort to revive a region that since the 1980s has seen the departure of several of Allegany County's largest employers, including Celanese Fibers Co., Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. and Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

As Pfefferkorn walks from his office in the refurbished 1913 Western Maryland Railway Station, along the brick plaza with its fountain and bronze statue of a young man leading a canal mule, he passes under a sign promoting "Shops at Canal Place/Festival Grounds/C&O Canal/Towpath."

A few paces past the sign, the Interstate 68 overpass rumbles atop pilings a few stories high, and just beyond that is Canal Place. The shops - six are in business now, with one vacancy - have been open about three years. Evening and weekend concerts have drawn crowds, but the full promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Former Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., the Cumberland Democrat who introduced the bill creating the Canal Place Authority in 1993, says the project "will do for Cumberland what Harborplace has done for Baltimore."

First, though, there's work to do.

A construction crew is putting up a building at the canal's edge to serve as a National Park Service station and ticket office. Graders groom the canal embankments, finishing work that began in the summer of 2003, when the Army Corps of Engineers redug a stretch of the canal and the basin at its end.

At its height in the 1870s, the canal conveyed hundreds of boats moving coal, lumber, cement and grain between Cumberland and Georgetown in Washington. The National Park Service says railroads had essentially made the canal obsolete by the mid-19th century, when the canal was completed, but the operation did not officially end until 1924.

At the moment, the rebuilt canal is not much to look at. The sides slope down to a dry trench, maybe 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, lined with layers of clay and plastic. The basin's cement walls are fashioned to mimic stone.

Water would be a nice touch. In the next few days, two 10-inch pipes poking from the basin wall will gush water pumped from the Potomac River, on the other side of the embankment.

Mary Y. Dan, the Army Corps project manager, said it will take less than a day to fill this section with water in time for Saturday's ceremony, scheduled to feature local, state and federal officials and a couple of bands. They're making an afternoon of it.

"It's basically falling into place, one piece at a time," says Pfefferkorn, a veteran city planner who spent years working on downtown redevelopment projects in small cities in Kentucky and South Carolina, many of which never got off the ground

The Canal Place project is the biggest he has worked on, with a budget of nearly $60 million split among state, federal and private sources.

The money has helped pay for the redigging, the shop buildings and the restoration of the old train station. Pfefferkorn says it will probably be three more years before the Army Corps finishes digging out and rebuilding about a mile of the canal, heading southeast. The plan is to pump water into that entire length and offer canal boat rides, complete with mule teams, as the National Park Service now does at the southern end of the C&O in Georgetown.

Rita L. Knox, a National Park Service ranger in Cumberland, says putting water back into the trench makes it easier for visitors to make sense of the place.

"We hope that will bring a little bit of the canal to life," says Knox, who works in the Park Service visitor center and museum next to the Western Maryland Railway Station.

Terry Crawford, who with his wife, Susan, runs the Crabby Pig restaurant in Canal Place, says business has been steady, but he's looking forward to the rush of water into the canal.

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