August 29, 2013

8/17/13 - Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP

On the way back from Catoctin Mountain Park, we detoured to Williamsport, MD to visit the old C&O Canal towpath which stretches 184.5 miles along the Potomac River from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD.   The canal closed in 1924 and sat abandoned for years.  Now this recreational piece of history is Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.   

The Cushwa Basin Visitor Center is one of 7 visitor centers along the towpath.  It's located in the old Cushwa Warehouse, itself a piece of history.  George got his passport stamps, then we watched the videos:  the current NPS one and a funky silent one with subtitles filmed in 1917, called "Down the Potomac".  Originally a dream of George Washington, the C&O Canal was dedicated by President John Quincy Adams in 1828, and was used for almost 100 years.
On weekends, rangers take visitors on boat rides on the 3/4 mile section of the canal up to Lock 44.  We got there too late to get one of the free tickets, but the ranger told us we could meet the boat at the lock for his talk.
The Trolley Barn Power Station is across the parking lot.  We walked past it on the way down to the towpath.  We didn't know what it was until later and didn't go back to check it out.  George says it's too late now.
Although all you see on the towpath now are people walking or biking, a towpath was the 12' wide road alongside a canal where mules trudged to pull barges past difficult sections of a river.  Squint your eyes a little and you might see mules plodding along the path, hauling barges upriver.  Whether you have to avoid their droppings is entirely up to your imagination!  Depends on how your day's been going, I suppose.

North on the towpath, is the Conococheague Aqueduct, a water bridge used to carry canal boats over creeks and rivers that flow into the Potomac.  Conococheague Creek meets the Potomac here. Please don't ask--I have absolutely no idea how to say it. Apparently the folks around there haven't agreed on one pronunciation, so I got a couple of different answers.
We turned the other direction, went under US-11 and past this old Railroad Lift Bridge from 1923.  It lifted the railroad tracks for the canal boats to go underneath.  There was a big flood a year after it was built so they didn't have to use it very long.
Next along the towpath is the Bollman Bridge.  It was built in 1879 by one of the first guys who engineered iron bridges.  It's the only bridge over the canal. 
Here we're almost to Lock 44.  Since we got there first, we had time to wander around.
The lockkeeper at Lock 44 was on call 24/7, although I'm pretty sure that's not 19th century terminology.  He got a salary, a rent-free house and an acre of land.  The ranger took us inside the Lockhouse, just across the towpath from the Lock, where the lockkeeper and his family lived. It looks like they've done a lot of work on the outside, and are starting to get it fixed up inside. The park and the canal trust have made six of the other lockhouses available for overnight stays.  Wouldn't that be cool if they did that to this one too? 
Back outside, the ranger explained how the locks lower and raise the boats to another level--like stairsteps with water.  I've been through the Ballard Locks in Seattle from Lake Washington to Puget Sound and we took a ride on the Erie Canal in NY, so I've seen locks at water level.  Although there's no water flowing, the demonstration showed us how some of the old locks worked from the lockkeeper's point of view.  Pretty cool.  
Lock 44 with gates open

First the ranger had us close the gates.
He used this wrench... open and close doors at the bottom
 to let the water in and out of the lock.
On the way back, we stopped to talk to a couple who were fishing.  (It's catch and release; no one would want to eat anything that came out of that nasty water!) Turns out he'd retired from the Secret Service, so he and George hit it off immediately and talked "cop". The boat passed us while we were chatting.

I think this towpath and park is better than the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath in Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Cleveland (see May, 2013, entry for our visit there.)  And I think it's designated correctly as a National Historical Park.  (End of rant.  Go check them both out yourself, and then let me know what you think.)

Here's the rest of my pictures of Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP

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  1. Beth & Eric RasmussenSeptember 17, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    The locks are very interesting. We've seen them along quite a few rivers. Good job here.


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