Children who think they can’t make a difference need only look at Amy and Rachel Baer for reassurance.
Two years ago, the Seven Locks Elementary school students and their classmates raised the first $3,400 toward buying a new replica boat for the C&O Canal at Great Falls Tavern.
Last week, Don Harrison, president of the Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern, signed a $533,000 contract with Scarano Boat Building in Albany, N.Y. to build the new boat, which Scarano has promised to deliver by mid-August.
Recalling how the students helped launch the effort, Harrison said, “I got a call from one of our board members. She said, ‘There are a bunch of kids in [Potomac] Village from Seven Locks School raising money for a new boat. … Nobody was thinking about it until they did that. Nobody had thought, ‘Let’s start raising money for a new boat.’”
“It started with the kids from Seven Locks,” said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of C&O Canal National Historical Park. “Sometimes as adults we’re jaded, I guess. We realized the obstacles to raising this kind of money. They weren’t hampered by that.”
The Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern took over the fundraising effort, working closely with the C&O Canal Association and the National Park Service. The groups secured $200,000 in state bond money last spring, and an anonymous donor added $100,000 more.
“I feel happy that we started it,” Amy, then 8, said at the presentation of the bond money last year.
But the fundraising isn’t complete. The Friends have collected $445,000 and need a total of $545,000, which includes the cost of transporting the new boat by flatbed truck from New York.
Amy and Rachel started raising money a year after a Seven Locks second-grade class visited C&O Canal National Historical Park only to learn that the boat was out of service.
The Canal Clipper II was retired in 2003 when it suffered irreparable damage to its concrete hull. It had been used for live demonstrations at Canal Lock 20, in front of the Tavern, for 30 years.
The new boat will have an aluminum hull and a wood superstructure, a combination that maximizes safety and longevity while accurately replicating a mid-19th century boat.
Harrison and Brandt are particularly pleased that the new boat will be fully wheelchair-accessible on both decks. The previous boat was not.
A packet boat is a type of passenger boat used on the Canal between the 1850s and the 1920s.
All of the canal boats were drawn by mules on the parallel towpath now used by walkers and bicyclists. Since the previous boat's demise, the Great Falls mules have been working part-time pulling the park's replica boat in Georgetown.
“A lot of people rode them from Georgetown up to the Great Falls Tavern. People would come up and have dinner and dance and dine and even spend the night,” Harrison said.
Brandt praised the Friends for “taking ownership” of the park and leading the canal boat effort.
“They’ve really come through for their community, their park and really for people all over this country and the world,” he said, referring to the parks’ many international visitors.
The canal boat is a fundamental part of the historical interpretation that park visitors experience, Brandt and others said.
Historical re-enactors still demonstrate the lock operations, but the effect is lost without the boat itself.
“It just brings everything to life,” said Rod Sauter, a park ranger at Great Falls.
“Literally tens of thousands of kids over the years have ridden that boat and are now bringing their own kids back to ride that boat,” Brandt said. “You don’t have to even ride the boat to appreciate it. Standing there next to Lock 20 as the boat goes down eight feet — it’s amazing.”
Visitation by school groups has fallen since the old boat went out of service. Park personnel and volunteers at the Tavern still frequently receive phone calls from groups that either don’t know that the old boat is gone or are calling to check if it’s been replaced.
“They just call every six months or nine months and say, ‘Is there a canal boat yet?’” Brandt said.
THE PARK SERVICE and Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern are planning a major christening event for when the new boat arrives in August.
As for the Canal Clipper II, the mayor of Hancock, Md. has contacted Brandt about taking the old boat to put on static display.
“They’re rediscovering their roots with the canal,” Brandt said.