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“Secrets of the C&O Canal” revealed during First Tuesday Speaker Series

By Staff | Jan 18, 2019

Sherri Fabic, left, laughs as she talks with Cumberland, Maryland-based author James Rada, Jr., who spoke during the January First Tuesday Speaker Series. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – What do we really know about the C&O Canal? Is it likely that secrets about the canal are waiting to be unearthed today? These and other questions are what led Cumberland, Maryland-based author James Rada, Jr., to write his book, “Secrets of the C&O Canal: Little-Known Stories & Hidden History Along the Potomac River.”

Rada revealed some of his discoveries about the canal during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on Jan. 8.

“When I originally did the canal in 1999, they hadn’t connected it to the Great Allegheny Passage,” Rada said. “At the time, my wife and I biked down from Georgetown, and I fell in love with the canal.

“I was reading about the canal as I went, and by the end knew I wanted to write about it. I’ve done four books about it now, and about a dozen articles,” Rada said, mentioning he has written 22 books in all.

While all of his books have a similar theme, history, they vary between fiction and nonfiction works. “Secrets of the C&O Canal,” however, was nonfiction, according to Rada, who said discovering these secrets was not difficult for him–many of them became apparent as he researched and checked his sources’ information.

“When I was researching for this book, I found out more information I had never heard of before,” Rada said, before turning on a PowerPoint presentation to help attendees visualize the history he explained throughout the event.

“The C&O Canal was the culmination of George Washington’s dream, to connect the Potomac River with the Ohio River,” Rada said, explaining that after Washington was out of office, the canal was next championed by John Quincy Adams.

“He broke ground on the canal,” Rada said of Adams. “You can see he was a big proponent – he thought very highly of this canal. The problem was that it was obsolete before it ever really got a chance to prove itself, because trains became popular.”

Although trains became the main means of transportation of items, the canal ran for almost 100 years, from 1831-1924. It’s main transported good was coal, although it was used for other transportation needs, as well.

“Until the 20th century, the canal boats were still the best way to carry coal. Dozens of different things were being shipped on the canal,” Rada said, mentioning sand and tobacco were some of the many items the canal was used to ship.

Rada spent the evening discussing the canal’s complicated history, including discussing how both slaves and free black men could be found working along the canal. And, at the end, he acknowledged that although his book reveals many secrets of the canal, many other secrets remain undiscovered, waiting for the right researcher to find them.

“There are still mysteries the canal holds that they’re trying to figure out. And maybe they will remain mysteries,” Rada said.