A new replica provides a portal to the past.
The main attraction of the 184.5-mile-long Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is the towpath. Mules used to tread that road, towing barges up and down the canal. Today, the road serves as a popular hiking and biking trail between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Md., with connections running through the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh.
But now, for just a mile of that distance, you can see firsthand how the canal was originally intended to work. Last October, the nonprofit organization Georgetown Heritage launched a $1.5 million replica of the cargo boats that carried coal, grain, lumber and building stone from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay tidal wave for nearly 75 years. . Barges like this one carried a million tons of cargo in 1875, the peak of the canal. The new boat carries up to 60 passengers on a one-hour round trip on approximately half a mile of restored canal.
The C&O Canal became a National Historic Park in 1971. In 2011, the canal’s previous replica ship, The Georgetown, was damaged beyond repair and deemed inoperable. The new ship was funded by a grant from the District of Columbia and designed as a historical replica of the ships you would have seen in the 1880s, the heyday of Georgetown’s commercial Canal operation, with some modern improvements, of course.
The ship was built at the Roudebush Yacht & Engine Works shipyard outside of Baltimore. According to Captain Bob Solomon, operations manager for Georgetown Heritage and one of the ship’s captains, the hull was built in two halves that were assembled after the ship was delivered to Georgetown. Measuring 80 feet long and 12 feet wide, the ship is modeled after historic package ship designs that were used on the canal during its first years of service. They were built to fit into the narrow locks of the canal. And, like the originals, the replica “has the maneuverability of a living room couch,” says Captain Solomon.
Not one to pass up a fun boat ride, I jumped at the chance to see the new canal barge on a sultry July day. I headed for lock 3 and there it was: the long, narrow packet boat, gaily painted green and white.
A young woman in a straw hat and long calico skirt served as their guide. She took her audience of about 50 passengers back in time as she told the story of the channel. Pacing up and down the aisle between the wooden benches, she told stories like that of James Curry, who escaped slavery in North Carolina and made his way to freedom in 1837 on a barge just like the one we were on.
The four locks that connect the Potomac River to Rock Creek are the heart of the canal in DC. There were originally 74 locks that allowed ships to climb the 605-foot height difference between Georgetown and Cumberland. The Washington Monument, by contrast, is only 555 feet tall.
Lock 3 is where the new canal boat is docked and where the existing National Park Service visitor center is located. Our tour began with an elevator in the lock. The captain squeezed the boat between the high rock walls, seemingly with only inches to spare on each side. Two costumed employees closed the huge wooden doors on the upstream side and water began to gush into the lock, slowly raising the hull about 7 feet.
Once the water reached the level of the upper part of the canal, the employees opened the huge gates upriver and we made our way to the Key Bridge. Today’s canal boatmen in matching blue T-shirts steered the cargo boat as their predecessors must have done in the past, using long wooden poles as bow thrusters, pushing the hull away from the stone-lined edges of the canal. narrow ditch. This replica barge features modern amenities and materials, including an onboard toilet and a 20kw electric motor at each end of its fiberglass and composite foam hull. During the ride, the guide gave her passengers a general history of the canal.
The race to settle the West began with two shovels filled with rocky soil in two different places on the same day: July 4, 1828. One shovel, wielded by 91-year-old Charles Carroll of Carrolton, the oldest living signer of the Declaration of Independence. , began construction of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore. The other shovel, wielded by 61-year-old John Quincy Adams, then the sixth president of the United States, opened the C&O Canal in Little Falls, Maryland.
The race was to see which mode, water or rail, would prove to be the most economical means of transporting goods and people between the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, somehow surpassing the 3,000-foot elevation of the Allegheny Mountains. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal would parallel the north bank of the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would begin along the Patapsco River valley, cross the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, and travel up the south bank of the river to Cumberland and then to Wheeling on the Ohio River in what is now West-by-God -Virginia.
Interestingly, while the mules carried cargo boats up and down the canal, during the first year of its existence, the railroad cars were pulled by horses. When the first steam locomotive, known as “Tom Thumb”, proved its worth in 1830, the future of the canal was doomed. Still, the race dragged on for another 100 years. It took until 1850 for the C&O Canal to extend its full 184.5 miles from the Washington, DC neighborhood of Georgetown to Cumberland. The railroad passed through eight years earlier, reaching Wheeling in 1853.
Flooding was a perennial problem, and the Great Johnstown Flood of 1887 devastated the entire Potomac River valley, leaving the canal in ruins. It never fully recovered and virtually closed for business in 1924. The federal government bought it in the 1930s and the Civilian Conservation Corps did a lot of restoration work along sections of the canal. It became a National Historical Park in 1971.
Once we reached the Key Bridge over the Potomac River, the captain stopped the boat, walked the 80 foot long over the top of the cabin, and took the helm at the opposite end. What had been bow became stern. The ship reversed course and returned to Lock 3. The journey along the canal provides a serene contrast to other Washington tourist attractions, and the experience of going up through the lock was highly satisfying.
The embarkation area is located at C&O Canal Lock 3, along the Canal towpath between Thomas Jefferson and 30th Streets NW. Tours run four times a day. To make reservations, visit georgetownheritage.org/boat-tours.