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Bridges Through Canal's Widewater

C&O Canal project to restore towpath nears completion.

Carl Linden has referred to the C&O Canal as a “magnificent failure,” but progress in several restoration projects near Great Falls leave Linden hopeful that the canal’s magnificence, not its historic failures, will be apparent within a year.

Officials at C&O Canal National Historical Park estimate that restoration of the towpath along the Widewater portion of the canal will be completed by this fall.

Widewater, a natural opening in the towpath canal between Old Anglers Inn and Great Falls Tavern, was susceptible to flood damage throughout the canal’s 177-year history. In 1972, flooding from Hurricane Agnes washed out a 40-foot stretch of towpath.

A $100,000 challenge grant from Potomac resident John Kimborough in 2002 launched an effort to restore the towpath at Widewater. Federal appropriations covered the project, estimated by the Park Service to cost a total of $1.7 million.

The Park Service closed the upper portion of the path by Widewater to hikers in January, and it remains closed during construction. Park visitors passing through the area must take the detour along Berma Road, long designated for bicyclists.

EARLY THIS YEAR, construction of two wooden bridge walkways began under the direction of Ron Haller of the Park Service’s construction branch. Last year, the Park Service opted for a restoration design involving two wooden bridges connected by a fairway, the preferred plan in the environmental assessment released in June 2004.

Alternative plans included installation of a continuous towpath, a plan which the Park Service deemed inconsistent with the park’s function as a historical park — evidence along the area indicates that the Canal Company used elevated walkways, according to the project’s environmental assessment. “The canal was a project always in progress,” Linden said.

Another option was no reconstruction at all — keep the path in its state of the last 30-plus years, passable on foot with a moderate amount of climbing over rocks, but impassable on a bike.

The two-bridge option now under construction combined historical authenticity with accessibility. For the first time in decades, bikers will be able to pass through the area without carrying their bikes.

“We thought that one was the best of the alternatives,” said Linden, past president of the C&O Canal Association.

BOB HARTMAN, acting deputy superintendent of C&O Canal National Historical Park, said the project is 40 percent complete — one bridge is near completion — and the whole project remains on schedule for completion this fall.

“Logistically, it’s a nightmare for construction,” Hartman said. Getting material to the site, especially the upstream portion of Widewater, requires constructors to bring material up Berma Road, the unpaved path that also serves as a bike detour.

WITH THE WIDEWATER project nearing completion, many canal aficionados — especially those who bike or hike the entire canal — hope to draw attention to Big Slackwater, a stretch in Washington County, some 84 miles above the canal’s terminus in Washington, D.C.

Hikers and bikers who pass through Big Slackwater must take a five-mile detour, much of it along a busy road, around a one-mile gap in the towpath.

“For many years, it’s been really, really bad,” said Jim Heins of the C&O Canal Association about the state of the towpath near Big Slackwater. “My wife and I hiked it in 1997, and it was bad then. … I was stupid enough to hike it in 2000, and when I hiked it, it was terrible. There’s no way to do it at all now — it’s really shot.”

Several projects near Great Falls are on the Park Service’s radar screen. Improvements to Great Falls Tavern and its immediate surroundings should receive funding for Fiscal Year 2006, and the park will accept contractors’ bids in October, said Hartman. The rest rooms will be modernized, and the landscaping and facilities will be altered to direct visitors to the front of the tavern.

“We’re going to try to make the tavern look like it did when the tavern was operating,” Hartman said.

Improvements to historic structures along the canal in the Seneca Village area is scheduled for funding in 2008, Hartman said. The area around Riley’s Lockhouse including the Seneca Aqueduct, the only lock/aqueduct combination on the canal, is scheduled for restoration, as is the turning basin, which is now obscured by foliage.

WHICH U.S. PRESIDENT loved to retreat to Pennyfield's lockhouse to go fishing? It’s President Grover Cleveland, and an interpretive sign near the lock describes Cleveland’s fondness for the spot.

This summer, the park service plans to add 15 such wayside exhibits along the length of the canal, several of which will be in the Great Falls area.

Bill Justice, the park’s chief of interpretation, and Rod Sauter, a park ranger at Great Falls, said that local signs will describe Widewater, stop gates and lock gates, the Billy Goat Trail and the Swain family.

Volunteers Steve DeLanoy and Heins already added one just below Great Falls Tavern by Lock 18. Adding the signs requires construction of a concrete base. “That was our trial run,” Heins said.