A third consecutive spring season has arrived without an operating canal boat by Great Falls Tavern. Don Harrison is optimistic there won’t be a fourth.
The National Park Service took the Canal Clipper boat at Great Falls Tavern out of commission in April 2003 because of irreparable damage to its hull. For 31 years, the mule-drawn Canal Clipper ferried more than 18,000 annual visitors to C&O Canal National Historical Park though the locks of the canal near Great Falls Tavern. Boat rides included park rangers and volunteers in period costume, who took the boat through an operational lift lock.
Park rangers continue to lead lock demonstrations at Great Falls Tavern.
“Even seeing it, a lot of them can’t conceive how it works without the boat,” said Steve DeLanoy, a park bike patrol volunteer. Many of the park visitors who rode the Canal Clipper were local students on field trips.
“What’s a canal without a canal boat?” said Harrison, president of Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern.
AN IDLE CANAL CLIPPER reopened to visitors on Saturday, April 23. It sits atop concrete supports in the canal just below Great Falls Tavern, now accessible by a wooden ramp. Aboard the Canal Clipper were more than 20 people including Seven Locks Elementary students, Friends of the Tavern members and state legislators who celebrated the progress of their efforts to replace the boat.
Both houses of Maryland’s state legislature approved bond bills would provide $200,000 for the acquisition of a canal boat near Great Falls Tavern. State senators Brian Frosh (D-16) and Rob Garagiola (D-15) were among sponsors of the Senate Bill, and the House sponsors were delegates Bill Bronrott (D-16), Jean Cryor (R-15), Kathleen Dumais (D-15), Brian Feldman (D-15), Marilyn Goldwater (D-16) and Susan Lee (D-16).
The state money is contingent upon Friends of the Tavern raising $75,000 in private funds —they have raised $17,700 as part of a $25,000 matching grant, and received a $50,000 grant from the C&O Canal Association.
Before the adults, though, Seven Locks Elementary students led the way. A group of second-graders arrived at Great Falls Tavern in spring 2003 and discovered the boat was out of service. Last May, the same students led a fund-raiser along the Six Locks portion of the canal towpath below the tavern, and raised $3,160 to replace the boat. On hand last Saturday were Seven Locks students Rachel Baer, 10, and her sister Amy Baer, 8. “I feel happy that we started it,” Amy said.
“I’ve been really happy and surprised how far it came from when we donated field trip money … to getting [$200,000] from the state,” said Rachel.
“What inspired me to get involved in this … was the involvement of our children in this project,” said Bronrott. “I see this as a great down payment … of their great crown jewel of Montgomery County."
A new canal boat will cost approximately $600,000, and Friends of the Tavern plan to acquire a double-decker “packet boat.” In the canal’s commercial days, packet boats ferried people between Georgetown and Great Falls, where people attended dances or stayed in rooms at the tavern.
With roughly half of the necessary funds accounted for, Friends of the Tavern hopes private and corporate donors will come through with the remaining $300,000. R. Mallory Starr, a consultant with Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group, offered pro bono assistance to help with the fund-raising. There is now a collection box at the park visitor’s center at Great Falls Tavern. Harrison said park visitors show steady interest in the project. One visitor on Saturday handed him a check for $250.
Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt met with designers at Scarano Boat Company in Albany, N.Y. last year and discussed design plans for a replica packet boat. Harrison believes that if funds are secured, a boat could be finished and transported to the canal within a year. “If everything goes well, hopefully we’ll be seeing a new boat by next spring,” Harrison said.