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Renovations Underway at Great Falls

An environmental study is underway to expand the road leading down into Great Falls

Anyone who’s been to the C&O Canal in the past few years has probably helped. At least, they did if they paid for parking.

On Jan. 17, the National Park Service unveiled the completed first phase of a three-phase restoration planned for the Great Falls Tavern.

The tavern first started as a lockhouse, built in 1829, and has not been renovated since 1948-52. Every year the area around the tavern is visited by about 1 million people.

“We totally renovated the outside,” said Douglas Faris, superintendent of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (NHP). The renovations consisted of a new roof, new rain gutters, new windows and shutters, and a fresh coat of paint.

The $470,000 renovation was paid for mostly through a federal program that allows national parks that collect fees to retain 80 percent of them for use at that park. The remaining 20 percent is put into a nationwide pool, which is then distributed back to parks through competitive grants.

The C&O Canal NHP collects $5 for a day pass, or $20 for an annual pass.

“Over three years we collected about $500,000,” Faris said.

Renovations were not done through the Park Service alone. The Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern made significant contributions. According to Faris, they purchased the shutters and bought lumber for the porches, among other things. “The shutters were hand-milled in Pennsylvania. They’re made of mahogany so they should outlast all of us,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain, former president of the Friends group.

The Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern is not done helping yet. On Jan. 17 the group issued a challenge grant, saying they will match contributions made to the restoration fund in the next year up to $25,000.

“This particular challenge grant will be earmarked for the tavern and its vicinity,” Pisarra-Cain said.

“We’re very excited about the challenge grant,” said Don Harrison, current president of the Friends group.

The Montgomery County Community Foundation will administer the fund. The foundation acts as a sort of clearinghouse for different funds, currently about 40. According to Sally Rudney, Executive Director of the foundation, they possess the financial expertise that allows them to deal with a variety of assets other than cash such as stocks, real estate, insurance and bequests. “We’re looking forward to helping fund the canal,” Rudney said.

Faris hopes to begin the econd phase of renovations next year, which will include enhancements to the heating and air conditioning system, improved access for people with disabilities, repairs to the outside walkways and a removable, portable flood barrier.

“The staff will be able to install it very quickly,” said Faris, recalling the flooding problems at the tavern in ’96. Faris estimates the cost of the second phase at about $1.4 million.

Phase Three is expected to include restoration of the inside of the tavern, new exhibits and a new bathroom facility in 2005 or 2006.

Projects that are not related to the tavern are also in the works. There is $180,000 set aside to build a comfort station near the Old Angler’s Inn. The Park Service also anticipates a $1.7 million grant to repair the “Widewater” area. Widewater is between the Tavern and Old Angler’s inn where there is a break in the towpath. According to park Assistant Superintendent Kevin Brandt, the money is scheduled to be received in the next fiscal year, pending a congressional appropriation.

Additionally, Faris hopes to rehabilitate the roadway leading to the tavern, and may add a bike path. Currently, the environmental study is underway for that part of the project. According to Brandt, the study should be completed in the next few months. The park is hoping to receive funds to implement changes in conjunction with Phase Two of the Tavern renovation.

“Four years from now, Great Falls is going to shine like a new penny,” Faris said.