Towards Connecting the Dots

Towards Connecting the Dots

Bob Hartman is determined not to let the C&O Canal’s history repeat itself.

He and his colleagues in the National Park Service (NPS) believe there is a flood-proof way to restore a 750-foot gap along the canal’s towpath at Widewater, a feat unprecedented in the canal’s 175-year history.

Just below Great Falls Tavern, the canal opens into Widewater, so named because it is where a larger natural channel is incorporated into the canal. Located between Great Falls Tavern and Old Anglers Inn, Widewater is in the most frequently visited portion of the 184-mile canal, but it is also one of the most susceptible to flood damage. There has been no towpath beside much of Widewater since Hurricane Agnes washed it away in 1972. What remains is a rocky trail that is more of a climb than a stroll for hikers, and impassable on a bicycle.

Is a smoother passage by Widewater a possibility for future visitors to the park? C&O Canal National Historical Park recently named restoration of the towpath at Widewater as one of its four restoration projects, and last week the NPS unveiled six proposals for reconstructing a path along Widewater. The Park Service also identified its preferred choice — a bypass consisting of two boardwalks and two stretches of gravel towpath — and once again, the issue is open for public comment.

“Over the long haul, this [design] would be more sustainable,” said Hartman, the park’s chief of maintenance.

THIS ISN’T THE first time the Park Service has attempted to reconstruct a towpath along Widewater. Mother Nature wrecked the towpath, and Father Politics has stymied restoration efforts. Even before Hurricane Agnes, a construction project began in 1970, only to be halted due to public and media criticism, said the Environmental Assessment. Similar efforts in 1976 were halted for similar reasons, and a 1984 historic assessment was never put into action.

With a spectrum of interests to consider from the environmental to the recreational to the historical to the financial, Hartman knows there is no solution that will satisfy all parties.

“There’s a whole gamut out there,” he said. In fact, Hartman expects that a design with a continuous towpath along Widewater will be the one favored by many park visitors.

“Everyone likes the towpath,” he said, adding that the elevated walks will also require more maintenance than the towpath, Hartman said.

But a mixture of wooden walkways and stretches of towpath is the most sustainable option, said Hartman. “There really wasn’t a feasible way of constructing [a continuous towpath] strong enough to resist the flow of water” during a major flood, Hartman said. “We’re trying to think of what that water will do in all types of situations.”

“The canal is in the floodplain of the Potomac River, and as taxpayers, none of us like to see our money spent frivolously,” said Kevin Brandt, acting superintendent of C&O Canal NHP.

THE PARK SERVICE held a meeting last week to present the Environmental Assessment for rehabilitating the towpath, and the six restoration proposals -- or five, since the first option is to maintain the status quo.

But the rocky pass around Widewater is an increasing concern of the park. Bicyclists passing through Widewater currently face the choice of going along a detour route on the inland side of Widewater, or carrying their bicycles through the rocky trail on the river side. Hikers who don’t mind clambering over the rockiest portions can make it through, but those who prefer the essentially level towpath have little choice but to take the bicycle detour.

Potomac resident John Kimbrough made a $100,000 challenge grant to help rebuild the towpath along Widewater last year. The projected cost of the restoration project is $1.4 million, according to the Environmental Assessment.

After viewing the reconstruction designs last week, Steve DeLanoy of the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol said, “They’re all nice, and they’re putting a lot of thought into it, which I like.”

Drill holes in the rock along Widewater suggest that two wooden walkways is the most historically accurate option, according to the Environmental Assessment, although several bypass methods likely existed during the canal’s commercial existence from 1828 and 1924.

After a public comment period, design of the approved towpath plan will begin, and the Environmental Assessment says construction should start in Fiscal Year 2004. Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc. of Greenbelt, Md., is the contractor that will oversee restoration of the towpath. The company’s prior National Park Service contracts include projects at Harpers Ferry, Monocacy and Assateague.

Hartman does not anticipate that Widewater will be closed to pedestrian traffic during construction, although bicyclists may be diverted. But in an area where some hikers are fresh off the rugged Billy Goat Trail, Hartman doesn’t believe it is realistic to ask people to turn back.

Dave Johnson of the C&O Canal Association said his two priorities in assessing the restoration project were “maintaining the historic aspect of the canal and maintaining the natural environment out there.”

“Without reading the [Environmental Assessment], I would concur with Alternative B,” said Johnson, referring to the two-boardwalk plan the park service endorses.



Feet of towpath missing along Widewater

$1.4 million

Projected cost to restore towpath along Widewater

$8.3 million

Budget for C&O Canal National Historical Park for Fiscal Year 2003

$68 million

Damage inflicted on C&O Canal NHP by 1996 floods


Widewater towpath restoration designs considered by Park Service


Wooden walkways in NPS-supported restoration plan


Gravel towpath portions in NPS-supported restoration plan


Elevation (in feet) of proposed boardwalk above existing surface


Width (in feet) of proposed boardwalk


Other preservation/restoration projects underway at C&O Canal NHP


Construction and reconstruction of a towpath along Widewater in 1970, 1976 and 1984 was stopped after criticism from different interested parties. With a diverse range of visitors at C&O National Historical Park, any redesign of a towpath has different factors and factions to address.

* Recreational — The portion of the canal between Old Anglers Inn and Great Falls Tavern receives approximately 1 million annual visitors. They include hikers, bikers, joggers, dog-walkers and naturalists.

* Historical — As a National Historical Park, C&O Canal NHP must address the historical integrity of any maintenance projects.

* Environmental — The canal’s towpath is within a 100-year floodplain and part of a wetland community. In building any structures, the Park Service must address any impact to nearby vegetation and waterflow.

* Budgetary — Restoration of the towpath by Widewater is projected to cost $1.4 million, and the park operates on an annual budget of $8.3 million. The Widewater project is one of four maintenance projects underway at C&O Canal NHP.

* Sustainability — Any construction must be designed to withstand the caliber of floods that have devastated so much construction along the C&O Canal through its history, most recently in 1996.

* Aesthetic — A natural body of water with an island in the middle and ponds between the path and the river, Widewater is a scenic part of the canal, and some concerned interests are likely to oppose any prominent man-made structures.

* Safety — The rugged Billy Goat Trail begins and ends at the Widewater portion of the towpath, and the rocky trail along Widewater hinders park rangers and the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol in responding to emergency situations on the Billy Goat Trail.


“Visitors today have to circumvent around hazardous terrain and unsafe walking and biking conditions.”

“Since ownership of the canal was transferred to the National Park Service [in 1938], the National Park Service has inherited the difficulties faced by the Canal Company in keeping the towpath passable in the Widewater area. Due to numerous flooding events, some, but not all, sections of the towpath, in the Widewater area, have been destroyed and restored.”

<1b>— Environmental Assessment,