In the current economic climate, workers are sometimes made obsolete by new technologies, unable to keep up with the pace of change. But nine females at the C&O Canal National Historical Park at Great Falls have outlasted the technology that provides them with their livelihood.
The Canal Clipper, which has plied the canal’s waters for approximately 30 years, has a hole in it, and the mules which pull the clipper are out of work.
The hole is considered irreparable, and a new boat won’t arrive for a year, at least.
Two mules a day will find work by commuting to Georgetown — in a horse trailer. No data was available on whether the trip sometimes takes longer by road than it used to take by towpath.
“There has been a request for funding for some time now,” said Rod Sauter, a park ranger at Great Falls Tavern, where the mules are stabled. In previous years, the new boat was not considered a high enough funding priority for the park service. Now that the old boat is not functional, Sauter hopes a new boat will move up in priority.
Sauter believes this is the third boat to bear the name “Canal Clipper.” At this point, no name has been discussed for a new boat.
The new boat, expected to have a fiberglass, steel or aluminum hull and estimated to cost between $800,000 and $1 million, may be at the park next year, but there are no guarantees that funding will be available.
Although there is not currently a fund set up for public donations toward the purchase of a new boat, park staff is looking into developing one. “I’m sure our partners will be a big part of the effort,” Sauter said.
Park staff is considering new boats in the style of a freight boat, or a packet boat. Packet boats were used to carry passengers along the canal from suburban Maryland to Washington during its heyday.
During the canal ride season from April to October, approximately 20,000 people have taken a ride on the boat, which can carry about 75 per trip, said Sauter. But the loss is even greater. “Even those who don’t ride it get a sense of how the canal operates,” Sauter said pointing out that other canal visitors could at least see the boat in operation, including moving through the lift lock.
Two mules at a time tow the boat along. “We try to get mules that are more even tempered, even if they are not the best workers,” said Kathleen Kelly, a park ranger who among other duties, tends to the mules. Because of the desire for more even-tempered animals, only females are used.
Nine mules are stabled at Great Falls: Ellie, Ida, Rhody, Lil, Katie, Frances, Ida, Molly and Nell. They pull not only the Canal Clipper, but also typically, two per day make the commute into Georgetown to pull the canal boat there. However, now that there will only be one boat to pull, several of the mules are redundant.
“Two or three will be retired,” said Kelly.
When mules are retired, they are typically leased out to other locations. One mule, Kit, has been taken to Mt. Vernon for $1 per year. Although provided with room and board, the mules do not see even one cent of that dollar, or the $8 that it had cost for a canal ride. The mules are usually kept at the canal during the summer and spend the winter at Mt. Vernon. Mules are usually retired in their mid-twenties – those being retired this year were probably near the end of their time at the canal.
The mules themselves are rather sanguine about the situation. “Braaayyyy,” said Ellie.
Ellie has little to complain about, having earned the summer off after nearly 20 years with the park service. She, along with Ida and Lil, will not be able to pull the boat in Georgetown. Part of the run there requires the mules to pass through a tunnel – a tunnel that those three are too fat to fit through.