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Open Widewater

After 63 years, towpath restored along problematic portion of C&O Canal.

Several times last Saturday, Norman Liebow squeezed through a crowd of more than 150 people clustered on the C&O Canal towpath above Widewater. Each time, a grateful biker trailed him through the throng. Liebow, a bike patrol volunteer on the canal, guided the cyclists through a section of the towpath that was impassable by bike for more than half a century.

Described as a “Baby Billy Goat Trail” by Jo Reynolds, a bike patrol volunteer from Potomac, Widewater was passable for hikers who didn’t mind clambering over rocks. However, bicyclists had to carry their bikes through it or take a detour along a nearby trail called "Berma Road" between the upper end of Widewater and Old Angler’s Inn.

For the first time in 63 years, there is a continuous towpath along Widewater. The crowd on Saturday was part of the official reopening of the towpath there.

“Am I dreaming? Is this possible?” said Reynolds, paying tribute to the late Helen Johnston, a C&O Canal Association member who advocated a Widewater restoration project in the early 1990s. “She loved Widewater with a passion. … She thought it should be accessible to everyone,” Reynolds said.

A NATURAL widening of the canal between Great Falls Tavern and Old Angler’s Inn, Widewater’s scenery belies the fact that it is one of the canal’s most problematic areas. Through the 178-year history of the canal, Widewater has been highly susceptible to flood damage.

“Probably no area has vexed the Canal Company and the National Park Service more than this area,” said Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt last Saturday.

The towpath was washed out and rebuilt several times when the canal was a commercial operation between 1850 and 1924. The federal government acquired the canal in 1938, and the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the towpath at Widewater during the Great Depression, but floods again washed much of it out in 1942. Floods following Hurricane Agnes in 1972 damaged the remaining towpath even further.

Plans to reconstruct the towpath in the 1970s drowned out in controversy over design proposals, and there was little momentum for restoring Widewater until four years ago.

POTOMAC RESIDENT John Kimbrough made a challenge grant of $100,000 to the C&O Canal Association in 2002. This money was originally earmarked for a Widewater restoration project. Ultimately, the project was funded by federal appropriations for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service. The money from Kimbrough’s grant was rolled to other C&O Canal Association projects, such as replacing the canal boat at Great Falls Tavern.

One year after the grant, the Park Service considered six Widewater designs that ranged from the status quo to a towpath-only solution to the Park Service’s preferred design that involved two boardwalks.

Opting for the two-boardwalk design, the Park Service closed off the towpath at Widewater in November 2004, and originally slated for completion late in 2005. However, it was slowed by the difficulty in transporting construction supplies to the site, which is on an island formed between Widewater and the Potomac River.

“I’m pretty proud to be part of it,” Ajay Bhatt, president of South Eastern Construction. “It’s got to be the most beautiful spot we’ve ever worked on,” added Bhatt, whose company also works with the Park Service at Harpers Ferry and Monocacy Battlefield.

South Eastern Construction workers trammed supplies like 8x8 timbers down Berma Road, across a shallow part of the canal and over to the rockiest portions of Widewater. Constructing the towpath and boardwalks required 122 tons of concrete, which was transported in five-gallon buckets and mixed on the site.

When the project was not completed by winter, the final phase had to wait until there was no longer a chance of freezing tempratures.

<sh>10-Mile Hike to Reopen

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Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt hiked 10 miles before he spoke at the Widewater reopening. He was one of more than 100 people who walked on the C&O Canal Association’s annual Douglas Hike. This year, hikers could choose a four-mile, six-mile or 10-mile trek, all of which ended at Widewater for the reopening ceremony.

Among the 10-mile hikers was former Potomac resident Gil Hill, who now lives in Washington, D.C. He used to run, hike and fish on the C&O Canal, and would enter the park at Swain’s Lock. He moved to Washington after his children graduated from Winston Churchill High School, but he remains a member of the C&O Canal Association. “It’s a wonderful association, because it’s a lot of people who care about the canal and want to see it preserved,” Hill said.

Named for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the hike is an annual commemoration of a through-hike Douglas led along the 184-mile canal in 1954 that raised interest in preserving the canal as a national park.

Every five years, the C&O Canal Association sponsors a through-hike from Cumberland, Md. to Georgetown. The last such hike was in 2004, on the 50-year anniversary of the original Douglas hike.