Bob Hartman knows that the 95 percent of C&O Canal National Historical Park visitors are locals who come several times a year. But it’s his job to worry about that other 5 percent.
“You still don’t want to miss that 5 percent there for the one and only time,” said Hartman, acting deputy superintendent of the park. “You have to be thinking always about that person that comes for the first and only time in your park.”
Those visitors deserve a first-class park experience, he said, which means clean restrooms, modern roads, and an attractive Great Falls Tavern visitors center that maintains the building’s historic feel.
THOSE OBJECTIVES are central to a planned two-part renovation of the Great Falls area of the park, which hosts the majority of the park’s 3 million annual visitors. The first part of the project — which includes remodeling the interior of the tavern and redesigning the “tavern yard” that surrounds it — could go out for bids as early as this fall.
The project includes practical improvements like a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system inside the Tavern and aesthetic changes aimed at recapturing the history of the canal’s operational period.
“I think it will be neat to see the Tavern [and] to see what it looked like when the canal was a working enterprise,” said Don Harrison, president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern.
Fixes to the Tavern’s air conditioning and heating systems will be a welcome relief, said Harrison. “It needs it,” he said. “The heating and air-conditioning system there is ancient.” Water damage is visible inside the tavern over some of the display cases, both on the ceiling and the walls.
PHASE TWO of the project will include a widening of the access road leading from MacArthur Boulevard to the ranger booth and parking lot at Great Falls, regrading and repaving of the upper and lower parking lots, and a new restroom building in a different location. The new access road will have 10-foot travel lanes and 3-foot shoulders to accommodate bicyclists. Currently it varies from 18 to 24 feet in total width with no shoulders.
Park staff had hoped to carry out both projects simultaneously, but the road project — conducted jointly with the Federal Highway Administration, which has jurisdiction over the access road — has lagged behind.
Designs for that project are close to 50 percent complete, while the Tavern-area plans are nearing 100 percent. Much of the delay in the road designs surrounds the relocation of utilities. The Park Service has wrangled with Pepco over burying overhead power lines, which is desirable but costly.
“Everything has gotten a little out of sync,” Hartman said. “We’re making very distinct project lines, how far we have to go with one project where the next project will pick up.”
FUNDING FOR the estimated $1.8 million improvement will come from a federal appropriation under the Fiscal Year 2006 Department of Interior appropriations bill, which passed the House of Representatives May 19 and the Senate June 28.
The Senate amended the bill — but left the Great Falls money intact — so the measure will now go to a conference committee and then return to both houses for a final vote.
“It looks good since the money was in both bills. So unless they take an axe totally to the bill it should remain intact,” said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), who Jacobs called a “big fan of the National Park Service” and the C&O Canal park.
If the revised bill passes both houses and is signed by the president, the funding would be released Oct. 1. But time is of the essence — legislators go on a one-month recess Aug. 1, and when they return, the battle over a Supreme Court nominee could bring things “screeching to halt” according to Jacobs.
“They’re trying to move the appropriations bills through as quickly as possible,” Jacobs said. “The optimistic scenario is we have it done before the end of July.”
Funding for the estimated $2 million road and parking lot restoration would come from the federal bill that includes Department of Transportation Funding, which passed that House of Representatives June 30 but has not reached the Senate floor.
PARK SERVICE officials introduced preliminary designs and environmental assessments for both projects to the public last November.
Community members at the public meetings generally praised the plans, but voiced concerns about safety on the entrance road. Ten-foot travel lanes are too narrow, some community members said, and the proposed shoulders should be not be advertised as bike paths since experienced riders will use the road anyway and less experienced riders may not feel comfortable on a three-foot shoulder that is not separated from the road.
“Serious road bikers, they have no problem. They zoom down and they crank up. … But I think that you will find that the bike riders will now be doing what they always do, and that is parking where there’s good parking and riding level on the towpath,” said Jo Reynolds of the C&O Canal Association at the November meeting. Reynolds said she still supported the entrance road plan but she hoped that pedestrians would use the internal route of the Gold Mine Trails while bikers remain judicious in deciding whether to use the road.
”It seems to me that building some additional capacity for bicycles is pretty sensible,” said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, but “addressing storm water in effective environmental ways should be a part of the design.” Poorly-managed stormwater runoff was likely responsible for the erosion along the shoulders of the road that has made the project necessary in the first place, he said.
FEW RESIDENTS attended the November meeting and Park Service officials said they received no comments during a required period afterward.
For those closely tied to the park, the emerging problem is how to modernize the facilities while marinating a 19th-century feel.
Moreover, planners must strike a balance in making historical restorations to an area that changed over time. A photograph of a packet boat near Great Falls Tavern shows a lockkeeper’s shed that no longer stands. During the operational years of the canal, there was also an extension of the Tavern that housed a kitchen.
“The period of significance of the canal runs almost 100 years,” said Rod Sauter, a ranger at Great Falls. “There were numerous changes in the landscape through the period.”
Even the current restroom building has its proponents. Built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the building hosting the rest rooms has historical significance, even if it is not from the Canal Company period, said Harrison of Friends of the Tavern.
Hartman stressed that designs will preserve the area’s history, while greatly improving the overall visitor experience.
“The entire first floor of the tavern will be accessible to those people who are mobility impaired. They’ll see the visitor areas completely rehabilitated. Hopefully they’ll see some new exhibits,” he said. “It won’t be looking like 1950.”