For the first time since the early Richard Nixon Administration, the C&O Canal towpath along Widewater is smooth enough to bike through. Within weeks, possibly before the end of December, the National Park Service will reopen the newly restored towpath where it was decimated by floods in 1972.
WIDEWATER is a two-mile natural widening in the canal between Old Angler’s Inn and Great Falls Tavern. With a small island in the middle, Widewater is one of the most scenic parts of the lower canal. Its traditional susceptibility to flooding also makes it one of the most problematic. The towpath along Widewater was wiped out several times between 1850 and 1924, when the canal operated as a commercial enterprise. Photographs of Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Great Depression show workers fixing the towpath along Widewater.
The Park Service made some abortive attempts to rebuild the towpath along Widewater in the years following its destruction in 1971. However, satisfactory construction plans proved elusive for a park that must balance historical authenticity with the reality that so many previous construction efforts were wrecked by floods.
“It’s been somewhat of a controversial area for about three decades now, about how it would be repaired, if it would be repaired, and when it would be repaired,” said Doug Faris, then park superintendent, during a March for the Parks in April 2002.
Some park visitors were content with the status quo. With some amount of clambering, Widewater remained passable to pedestrians. Bikers could carry their bikes through the jagged portion along Widewater, or take a 2-mile detour on Berm Road, although that route is accessed only by a staircase and the parking lot by Old Angler’s Inn.
But plugging a level route along Widewater restores a sense of continuity to the towpath, which has few other breaches along the 184-mile-long park.
Citing evidence that wooden walkways bridged portions of Widewater during some of the Canal Company years, the Park Service released the Widewater project’s environmental assessment in June 2004 and stated its preference for building two boardwalks linked by a new gravel path.
The Park Service closed part of the towpath at the beginning of 2005, and the construction work, originally scheduled to finish in July, has been delayed several times.
"We’ve had some challenges with the contractor and a few other issues," said Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt at a Dec. 14 meeting of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.
One consideration was that some of the work required lowering the water level at Widewater, and the park prefers not to do that during its peak usage time in summer.
"I put my foot down and said, 'You’re not going to do this when it's hot,'" Brandt said, but the special team of stone masons needed for the work wasn't available again until months later.
The construction is now nearly finished and the route is already passable, with two new wooden walkways linked by a new gravel path.
Restoring the gravel path between the walkways required construction of an embankment that resembles a stone wall. This embankment raises and levels a passage that was once jagged and impassable on a bike (although bikers so inclined could carry their bikes through this section).
ONE MILE upstream from Widewater, the Canal Clipper sits atop concrete blocks in the canal in front of Great Falls Tavern, where the boat has remained high and dry since it was taken out of service in the spring of 2003. The mule-drawn boat carried more than 18,000 park visitors each year on a route that went upstream from the tavern, then back to the tavern through an operational lock.
Don Harrison hopes that a new canal boat could be in place by July 2006. “Optimistically, we think it might,” said Harrison, president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern.
Like the Widewater project, efforts to replace the canal boat began with a show of local support. Students from Seven Locks Elementary School raised more than $3,000 in the summer of 2004, a year after a Seven Locks second-grade class went on a field trip to Great Falls Tavern, only to learn that the Canal Clipper was out of service.
"The Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern said, 'Hey, these kids are serious. We can't let this go," Harrison said.
The group held a community meeting at the Potomac Library Jan. 24. Standing in the same room Dec. 14, Harrison announced that Friends of the Tavern had raised more than $425,000 of the estimated $500,000 they will need to pay for a new replica boat. The total donated by local families and citizens reached $165,000. The state of Maryland appropriated $200,000 for the project, and the C&O Canal Association contributed $50,000.
"We’ve got a number of groups that we work with but no group has exercised the vision and the leadership that [Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern] has," Brandt said. "I just can't wait until that day in July when we crack that bottle of champagne on the bow of the packet boat."
Friends of the Tavern remain in negotiations with several boatbuilders, including Maryland companies in Havre de Grace, Edgewater and on the Eastern Shore. Park Service officials and Friends of the Tavern members also visited Scarono, boatbuilders based in Albany, N.Y., who have built a boat for the Ohio Historical Society.
Each company submitted design proposals and cost estimates for the boat. Friends of the Tavern once estimated the project would cost $600,000, but some of the proposals they have received are closer to the $500,000 mark.
Harrison describes Scarono’s proposal as “very viable.” Scarano’s current plans are for an aluminum hull with a cedarwood superstructure in the packet boat design — the latter is a Park Service requirement. Scarono has an indoor facility and can begin work on a boat as soon as plans are finalized.