Like a rising tide — a very slow one — water began to fill the C&O Canal last week. On Friday morning, Park Service officials opened the guard lock by Violette’s Lock, which waters the canal all the way down to Little Falls. Typically, it takes about two to three days to fill the canal.
“It’s slowly bur surely inching up as we speak,” said Park Ranger Warren Kasper later that afternoon.
It was necessary to drain that entire stretch of the canal during repairs to Lock 20, just below Great Falls Tavern, said Kasper. The water can’t be drained piecemeal. By Monday, the water level was near the top of the lock.
Last year, when the swing gates on Lock 20 were closed, water cascaded out through cracks in the wood. That’s normal. What’s not normal is for water to flow through the stonemasonry in the lock, which was also happening.
Through the last few months, contractors repaired the masonry between the stones in Lock 20, a process known as “repointing,” Kasper said. It’s a relatively rare occurrence at the park for a lock to be repaired, Kasper said — there are 74 locks, but very few of them are still operational.
LOCK 20 IS but one of many visible changes afoot at C&O Canal National Historical Park by Great Falls Tavern. The Tavern itself is fenced off as it undergoes renovations that will last until late in the year.
Behind the Tavern, there’s a new upper balcony. “Both the balconies were rotten,” said Park Ranger Aly Baltrus.
“Really rotten,” agreed Gary Shryock of N. Powell Co., the West Virginia-based contractors reconstructing the Tavern. They were among the priorities of the first full-scale renovation of the historic building, which is nearly 160 years old.
When repairs are completed later this year, the Tavern’s facade will look structurally unchanged — just newer. “Basically all we’re doing outside is putting it back the way it was,” Shryock said.
A pile of radiators behind the Tavern shows the process of going out with the old — inside the building, N. Powell is installing a new heating and ventilation system, as well as new plumbing and a sprinkler system. The rest rooms will be renovated and made handicapped-accessible.
While the Tavern is being renovated, the visitors center is temporarily relocated in a trailer beside the concession stand near the parking lot.
BALTRUS IS the new supervisory park ranger at Great Falls. She previously worked at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, just outside New Orleans. While knowing the history of the C&O Canal calls for a knowledge of major floods that affected the canal, Baltrus saw first-hand the damage Hurricane Katrina wrought on Lafitte Park and the surrounding area.
“It really took a beating. It was underwater for a number of weeks,” Baltrus said. Hundreds of yards of brick fencing were washed away, and the park lost its visitors center in the floods.
“When I left, almost no one had electricity [or] phone lines,” Baltrus said. “It’s just very sad, very slow progress. The lucky ones have gutted their homes. … Very few have moved back.”
“I LOVE THE C&O Canal,” said Baltrus, who worked at Rock Creek Park before moving to Louisiana. She used to enjoy coming to the canal, and is especially fond of the mix of nature and history the park offers.
She’s hoping some local residents share her enthusiasm for the park’s new canal boat — both as passengers and volunteers. For the first time in four years, the park will offer mule-drawn canal boat rides both at Georgetown and Great Falls. The boat at Great Falls, the Charles F. Mercer, arrived last September after a successful $540,000 fundraising effort by Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. Now Baltrus and the other park rangers seek volunteers to help operate the boat, (See “Guide the Boat.”) which will resume operations on April 19.
RIDE THE BOAT
The Charles F. Mercer, the new mule-drawn canal boat by Great Falls Tavern, is scheduled to resume operation on Thursday, April 19. Rides are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors or children. Through May, the boat will operate only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The Park Service hopes to operate the boat five days a week beginning in June.
Tickets are available at the temporary Visitors Center, located by the concession stand. (The Tavern, which houses the permanent Visitors Center, is under renovation this year) Reservations are not necessary except for groups of 10 or more. Call Great Falls Tavern at 301-767-3714 for group tickets or more information.
GUIDE THE BOAT
C&O Canal National Historical Park seeks volunteers to serve as costumed members of the crew aboard the Charles F. Mercer, the new canal boat by Great Falls Tavern. It is an opportunity to work outdoors and share a love of history while educating the public on life during the canal era. The park seeks volunteers who can give a regular commitment, and offers flexible schedules as well as the necessary training, orientation and costumes. Contact David Tune, volunteer coordinator, at 301-714-2233 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.nps.gov/choh.