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Rotary learns about the C&O Canal

By Staff | Dec 11, 2015

Members of the C&O Canal Trust joined the Shepherdstown Rotary at their breakfast meeting Tuesday to share the history of the canal as well as ways to help protect and preserve it.

Michael Mitchell, board chairman for the Trust, explained that the canal runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland. A second phase traversing ground from Cumberland to Pittsburgh was never completed.

Work on the canal began on July 4, 1828, the same day the first spike was driven in the B&O Railroad project. However, the idea of the canal and movement through water began much earlier. George Washington developed the Patowmack Company in the 1780s with ideas about developing a canal system; however it didn’t really get moving until later.

Mitchell shared that the canal, that has 74 locks, 11 aqueducts and many other features is “an engineering marvel.”

“It was an average of an 11-day trip to travel the canal,” Mitchell said, “but making good time, one could do it in seven days.”

Peak operation of the canal was in the 1870s when coal was moved quire frequently. Agricultural products were also moved along the canal.

The Civil War saw the canal as the dividing line between the north and south and as such, it received much abuse. There was not much maintenance done during that time.

In addition to abuse from man, the canal was often flooded which did a lot of damage as well. Floods, highway travel and the advancement of the railroad helped put the canal out of business in 1924.

There was a push in the early 1950s to pave over the canal and make it a road. The Washington Post, Mitchell said, came out in support of the paving idea until William O. Douglas challenged members of the paper’s staff to walk from Georgetown to Cumberland on the canal and see what a national treasure the canal was.

After that time, work began to improve the canal and it became a part of the National Park System in 1971.

The canal covers 20,000 acres, has 1,300 structures including locks and lock houses and ranks in the top five of the nation’s national parks.

The Canal Trust, as was shared by President Robin Zarotti, works to raise funds to help maintain the canal. There are a variety of programs including Canal Discovery, Canal Pride, Canal Quarters and Canal Towns that help raise the money for maintenance and repair that is simply not available in the National Park Service budget.

Canal Quarters is the name given to the program that refurbished the canal’s lock houses. These houses are now available to rent for overnight stays within the park.

Canal Pride is a volunteer push to have individuals and businesses come into the park and work to clean up. There are three public events each spring, Zarotti said, as well as special business events scheduled that help company’s promote team building.

There are several Canal Towns who now are part of the Trust that help maintain the canal. In Jefferson County, Harpers Ferry and Bolivar as well as Shepherdstown are part of the program. In addition, Brunswick, Cumberland, Sharpsburg, Point of Rocks and Williamsport are also designated as Canal Towns.

To find out more about the canal and how to help preserve it, visit www.canaltrust.org.