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Washington's Historic C&O Canal - A Living Museum
If you're looking for an alternative to Washington, DC's monument and museum circuit, escape into the 19th century with a boat tour of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The C&O Canal was built in the mid-1800s to transport coal, lumber and grain from rural Maryland and Pennsylvania down through the Potomac Valley to Georgetown. Since the region's primary inhabitants were farmers, indentured laborers who were skilled in carpentry, masonry and stone cutting were brought from Europe to construct the canal. The canal, with its mule-powered boats, opened the region to commerce and provided raw materials and finished goods to Washington, the canal towns and western Maryland. However, the canal's success was doomed from the start. On the same day President John Quincy Adams attended the canal's groundbreaking ceremony in 1828, construction began on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Due to the swifter efficiency of the "iron horse" and fading financial support for the canal, the C&O never extended to Pittsburgh as originally planned. The canal operated almost continually up until 1924, when a flood damaged the waterways beyond repair.
Presently, the 184-mile canal is a national historical park and can be experienced first-hand aboard the decks of authentic canal boats run by park rangers dressed in period costume. Canal boats are operated in Georgetown and in Great Falls, Maryland.
The canal tours, which last about an hour, are enlivened with history and humor. Upon boarding the boat, riders should heed the strictly enforced list of rules: "There'll be no dischargin' of firearms, no whiskey drinkin', no caterwaulin' and no tobacca spittin'!"
The most exciting part of the trip occurs at the beginning. In order to travel upstream, the boat must be maneuvered through one of the canal's 74 locks. First you'll hear the rush of water as two doors (weighing two tons each) are pulled wide, allowing the water upstream to fill the lock and gently raise the boat to a higher level. For the first few moments you'll find yourself sitting below street level in a cool damp chamber surrounded by stone. As the water level begins to rise you will notice passersby coming into view - feet first! Once out of the lock, the boat is hitched to two mules and pulled gently along a peaceful tree-lined towpath.
"Imagine, if you will," encourages one tour guide, who wore heavy boots and a long calico dress, "that warehouses and mills still line the canal. During the canal's busiest time, as many as 100 boats passed through a single lock in one day. You can imagine how busy we all were then!"
As the mules tow the boat upstream at three mph, the park service rangers transport the passengers to the 1800s - one spins tall tales while the other thumps out a rendition of "Old Susannah" on a washboard.
For a restful excursion filled with history and scenery, a boat ride on the C&O Canal can't be topped. Picnics are allowed aboard the boat, but you may want to wait until after the ride to pick a shady spot alongside the canal and watch (from above) how a boat navigates the locks. Don't forget to save the old sepia-print postcard of a historic canal scene that doubles as the admission ticket.
The canal towpath is open for all types of recreation and still extends the original 184 miles to Cumberland, Maryland. Information about walks and evening programs, conducted year round, is available at various information centers along the canal. Hiking, horseback riding and bicycling remain popular activities along the towpath, as well as canal canoeing and boating between Georgetown and Violettes locks. However, swimming and wading are prohibited in the canal.
Several different types of campgrounds dot the length of the canal, such as drive-in camping, group campgrounds and hiker-biker overnight campsites.
The canal boats operate along the C&O Canal from mid-April through late October. The Georgetown Canal departs several blocks from the heart of Georgetown, just outside the Foundry Restaurant on Thomas Jefferson Street. The Canal Clipper departs from Great Falls, Maryland, in front of Great Falls Tavern. During the height of the summer season, the boats make as many as three or four trips per day.
For more information, contact C&O Canal at 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, MD 20854; 202/653-5844 or 301/299-3613.