Lock demonstrations continued in the C&O Canal by Great Falls Tavern last year, but there was no boat moving through the locks. Elie Pisarra-Cain would like to see this change.
“That’s something you never forget. It’s a real lesson on how hard it was to work in those days,” said Pisarra-Cain, past president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. “You can move faster riding a bike up the towpath than they could go in the boat.”
For nearly 30 years, the Canal Clipper annually ferried more than 18,000 visitors to C&O Canal National Historical Park. Rangers and volunteers in period costume operated the mule-drawn boat, bringing visitors from Great Falls Tavern for a one-mile round trip up the canal and back.
In spring 2003, damage to the Canal Clipper’s hull rendered it inoperable. Wire mesh embedded in the Clipper’s concrete hull began to rust after three decades in the water, and cracks began to form in the concrete, said Rod Sauter, a park ranger stationed at Great Falls. There was too much damage to the hull to safely continue operations, so the Clipper was retired to a set of blocks just below Great Falls Tavern, and there it remains.
Rangers periodically lead a lock demonstration at Lock 20, one of several operational locks remaining in the canal. Still, said Sauter, “There’s nothing like seeing a boat actually go through locks and being pulled by mules.”
AMONG THE ANNUAL visitors were 8,000 children, who either went with their families or as part of an educational field trip. Students from elementary school through college age rode the Clipper.
“I think it’s a very good educational tool,” said Don Harrison, president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. “It just shows people what it was like to travel on a boat in the heyday of the C&O Canal.”
In a November interview with the Almanac, Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt said the park is exploring every possible option for replacing a canal boat, but the process is likely to take several years in a best-case scenario. “[T]o me that is so fundamental to telling the story, because where else can you go to go through an original 18th century lock?” said Brandt.
However, other priorities along the 184-mile canal take precedence with the park’s annual budget of about $8 million. Restoring the towpath along the Widewater section of the canal (just above Old Anglers Inn) is one maintenance project funded in the current fiscal year’s budget, and reparations are underway this winter.
LAST SPRING, students from Seven Locks Elementary raised more than $3,400 to help pay for a new canal boat. The students were disappointed to learn that the Clipper sank days before they went to Great Falls on a field trip scheduled spring 2003. One year later, the Seven Locks students, then third-graders, raised the money through a Hike/Bike to Raise the Boat last May. The money they raised is now held by the Montgomery County Community Foundation.
“It was the initiative of second- and third-graders to do this,” Pisarra-Cain said. “Now it’s our obligation to get on the trail and follow their example. … It makes such a statement when the community raises money for something like this.”
Friends of the Tavern will host a meeting at Potomac Library on Jan. 24, and want to hear from others who are interested in returning a canal boat to the canal by the Tavern.
“We now have a two-boat package that we’re raising money for,” said Pisarra-Cain. Her hope is to relocate the current Canal Clipper ashore by Great Falls Tavern, where it can be restored to accommodate visitors on land a living history lesson.
Pisarra-Cain and Harrison hope to build on the momentum started by the Seven Locks Elementary students. They estimate that a replacement canal boat and restoration of the landlocked Canal Clipper will cost between $500,000 and $1 million.
“The Friends of the Tavern don’t want to see that die,” said Harrison. “[We hope] to show the kids that their work is not in vain [and] that people are interested in getting a boat back in there.”
The towpath along the C&O Canal is closed between the stopgate and the head of Widewater for during restorations along Widewater. The closed section is the part skirted by the bicycle detour. For the time being, the detour serves for hikers as well. The towpath in much of this section was destroyed during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Since then, it has been one of the very few rugged, rocky gaps in the 184 miles of towpath between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md.
The Canal Clipper boat, now inoperative, is a replica of a cargo boat. “The Canal Clipper was built, relatively speaking, like one of the freight boats of the period,” said Rod Sauter, a park ranger stationed at Great Falls.
There is no hope of restoring the Canal Clipper to a seaworthy state, but Elie Pisarra-Cain, past president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern, hopes the Canal Clipper can be brought ashore along the canal to serve as a living history exhibit. Visitors could see the cramped quarters where canal boaters and their families slept while hauling goods between Cumberland and Georgetown. Many boaters had children aboard, and tied ropes around the waists of their children as a safety measure for those who slipped off the deck.
“Historically these boats would have come from Georgetown here every day,” said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of C&O Canal National Historical Park, last November.
“It was people going on excursions,” said Pisarra-Cain.
Friends of the Tavern are hoping a replacement boat would be designed like a packet boat.
Packet boats ran through most of the operational years of the canal, which operated commercially between 1850 and 1924. Many packet-boat excursions ferried passengers on four-hour voyages between Georgetown and Great Falls, where they could debark to view the scenery, enjoy food and beverage at the Tavern, or stay overnight. Don Harrison, president of Friends of the Tavern, said the organization has a member in her 90s whose grandparents met at an 1850 dance in Great Falls Tavern.
One of the most thoroughly documented packet boats ran out of Cumberland, with “Queen City of Cumberland” written on its stern. A series of 1904 photographs exist of this boat from several angles, said Sauter.
A packet boat would be the most historically authentic model, since they were designed to carry numerous passengers instead of freight, said Sauter, who worked on a project to build concept plans for potential replacement canal boats. “We can make a replica packet boat look almost exactly like it did at the time.”
Currently, the only operational canal boat run by the Park Service is in Georgetown.