Trivial Pursuit

Lock and Lockhouse 70

Lock and Lockhouse 70

Although the canal is watered between Lock 71 and the Town Creek Aqueduct, I’ve often wondered what the C&O really looked like while it was in operation.  However, one does have to start somewhere, and Lockhouse 70 is partially open to the public and contains an interesting display that relates several facts pertaining to the canal at Oldtown.

For starters, why is the watered section of the C&O Canal near Oldtown often referred to as Battie Mixon’s Fishing Hole?  In 1945, Battie Mixon was the head game warden in Allegany County, Maryland, and he supervised the re-watering of the canal.  The project was fully completed in the 1950s. Mill Run was diverted to fill the empty canal bed, and the result is a long stretch of water that is popular with fishermen.

Nevertheless, Battie Mixon’s Fishing Hole is slow moving and stagnant.  It can be overrun with algae during the warm months, and it doesn’t give an accurate depiction of the normal flow of water when the canal was still in operation.  Instead, dams and guard locks were built along the Potomac River, and there was a considerable downstream movement of water on the canal.  Recently, I was looking for books on my Kindle, and stumbled across James Rada, Jr.’s historical novel, Canawlers.  The thing about historical novels is that they are sneaky–facts pop up along the way as the reader is enjoying the story.

For example, the water in the canal (at normal levels) flowed at two miles-per-hour.  Thus, lighter loads or empty boats headed to Cumberland, and the real tonnage went downstream to Georgetown (generally coal).  The water in the canal was approximately 6′ deep, and could be up to 16′ deep as the boats were “locked through.”  Canal boats often carried a staggering 120 tons of coal.  Thus, boats heading downstream had the right-of-way when passing those heading upstream.  Also, there was a four mile-per-hour speed limit on the canal, but the dependable, slow-moving mules knew their pace and held to it.

In all, there are numerous books (fiction and non-fiction) that depict life on the C&O Canal.  Many others concentrate on the historical structures, flora and fauna, and recreational opportunities that can be found along the towpath.  Everybody enjoys a good book, and as I read one, I’ll let you know, and if anybody has a favorite, feel free to leave a comment!

Battie Mixon's Fishing Hole

Battie Mixon’s Fishing Hole

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2 responses to this post.

  1. The operating lock at Great Falls Tavern gives an idea as to how the canal looked during its operational period. There the water still flows from the inlet at Seneca. However, walking there last winter when there was no water, it was apparent that the canal is no longer six feet deep below Tavern Lock due to silting.

    A book I like is Thomas Hahn’s “The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Lock-Houses & Lock-Keepers.” The portion on the lock-keepers is taken directly from Harlan Unrau’s work which can be found on the NPS website. Hahn’s real contribution here was with the lockhouses. This monograph may still be found on-line through used book sellers — but of all out-of-print books about the C&O I have found on-line, this one is most expensive.


  2. Posted by LevelWalker on August 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Jamie, thanks for the information. There seemed to be a fairly significant catfish kill between locks 70 & 71 due to algae buildup or stagnation. The lower end of the canal is definitely more realistic. Pointing out anything written by Hahn is a definite plus. I’ve been planning on buying a posthumously published manuscript by William Davies (The Geology and Engineering Structures of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) that is available on the C&O Canal Association website. It sounds like heavy, but worthwhile reading.

    I continue to enjoy your canal site. I’ve picked up a lot from reading your posts!


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