At 184.5 miles in length, the C&O Canal NHP is a ribbon of land that follows the Potomac River and its North Branch from Cumberland, Md. to Georgetown, DC. With eleven aqueducts, seventy-five locks, over one-hundred culverts, and a 3118′ tunnel along the way, there’s plenty that can go wrong. The Catoctin Creek Aqueduct project and repairs at Big Slackwater (scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2012) mark two major victories, but the fact remains that the National Park Service is under-funded. According to the Canal Trust (www.canaltrust.org), the C&O receives about 37% of the funding necessary to keep everything in top shape. We took the above picture a few years ago, and the premise is that the Paw Paw Tunnel is a brick-lined, drippy mess that requires constant attention. After all, nobody wants to be plunked on the head by a falling brick!
The C&O Canal has plenty of friends and allies, such as volunteer groups like the C&O Canal Association and Canal Trust. Toss in a very good maintenance staff and the rangers, and it appears as if the park can endure forever. However, it must also be noted that the canal has some very powerful enemies–time, water, and a lack of funding. The old house at the Paw Paw campsite has structural damage that isn’t likely to be fixed anytime soon, and many of the culverts have outer walls that have fallen in around them. The end result could be sink holes and erosion that cause severe damage to the towpath. It would be great to fix all of these problems, but it must be remembered that the national parks were nearly closed last year amidst some pretty severe budget cut proposals. There really is no easy answer.
The C&O Canal ceased operations due to a severe flood in 1924 and basically “sat there” for decades. During this time, many old lock houses fell into a state of disrepair, leaving nothing behind but their foundations. Fortunately, there are many surviving houses, including #56 at Pearre Station. During the flood of 2010, we were fortunate enough to meet two brothers who lived there in the 1930s. We had no idea that the houses were occupied long after the canal boats stopped running. Candee and I listened intently to their tales about swimming in the lock (now waterless) and “borrowing” coal from the nearby railroad. I’m sure that every structure, both existing and in ruins, has a history of its own, and hopefully many generations of visitors will enjoy them.
As stated, we are fortunate to have a great maintenance staff taking care of the park. The picture above is from one of our older posts and shows some of the destruction from a storm in June of 2011. About .5 miles of the towpath and canal were littered with numerous broken and uprooted trees, and we had a difficult time getting our bikes through the mess. We went back a couple of weeks later, expecting to see some progress, but much to our surprise, the cleanup crew had taken care of everything and the towpath looked as good as new. Yes, man won that round, but there’s plenty that can go wrong, and you can bet that it will.
The C&O Canal NHP is a wonderful place for hikers, bikers, and history buffs. It brings in approximately four-million visitors every year, and the money they spend is a bonanza for nearby towns. However, the park shouldn’t be taken for granted. We may love it, but the Potomac River (and its tributaries) and Father Time are determined opponents. Likewise, the NPS doesn’t have the resources to make the park immune to nature’s influences. As individuals, I suppose the best thing we can do is volunteer our time and lend a helping hand. In the end, it’s a great investment.