Bugle Call

A New Way to Ride Through History: Infrastructure Improvements Now Underway Along the C&O Canal

May 9, 2016

National Park Service Recreation Historic Preservation Transportation

A New Way to Ride Through History: Infrastructure Improvements Now Underway Along the C&O Canal

Editor's note: May is Preservation Month—a perfect time to hear about the exciting preservation and restoration projects taking place at one of the most beloved historic sites in the Heritage Area.  

Typically, one does not temporally associate the operation of the C&O Canal as a transportation route with the events of The Great Gatsby, but big changes afoot at the Cushwa Basin on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Williamsport, Maryland aim to change all of that.  

Most locals familiar with the Canal know the story told at the Great Falls Tavern area—when the Canal was a prosperous endeavor at the height of its success, in the 1870’s. But the Williamsport mile of the C&O—with an impressive collection of industrial-era history—is well-positioned to tell a different, though no less important, part of history: the end of the Canal period on the Potomac River from 1920-1924. It is a story that has not been told in full—until now.

A historic B&W photo of the partially collapsed aqueduct

In April 2016, ground was broken on a series of projects that will transform the Williamsport mile of the C&O Canal into a destination for visitors looking to learn more about—or just walk along—the Canal’s later period. The groundwork for this project actually began in 2000 with the restoration of Lock 44 and continued in 2012 with the refurbishment of Lockhouse 44 and the eventual introduction of Launch Boat Tours in the Cushwa Basin. But starting this year, you’ll be able to see some of the massive changes in store for Williamsport.

First, work began in April to repair the behind-the-scenes portion of the Cushwa Basin infrastructure, the water intake system, which will allow future projects to proceed. This pump will pull fresh water up from the Conococheague Creek to fill the basin and allow for the operation of Lock 44. (It will have the side benefit of making the basin smell a lot better come August!)

This summer, for the first time in recent memory, the Western Maryland Railroad Lift Bridge will be raised to provide access for canal boat traffic to pass underneath. All of this will lead up to the “pièce de résistance,” when the park begins to repair and restore the primary historic structure along the Canal in Williamsport: the Conococheague Aqueduct.

The Conococheague Aqueduct is one of eleven aqueducts built to enable travel over rivers along the 184.5 miles of the Canal. The three-arch design built from local stone was completed in 1834 and damaged by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. In 1920, a boat bounced off one of the massive stone walls and the wall gave way; the wall and boat to fell into the river below. A wooden wall was built to keep the aqueduct in use until the Great Potomac Flood of 1924 caused the Canal to cease operation.

The park aims to restore the aqueduct by 2018. Completing all these improvements will allow for a historically-accurate canal launch boat to operate in Williamsport, offering public and curriculum-based interpretive living history programs. The launches will enhance the learning experience and increase the fun factor by providing on-the-water tours of the Williamsport boat basin downstream to Lock 44 on the canal. It will be the only place in North America where visitors can experience the thrill of crossing over a re-watered stone aqueduct, under a railroad lift bridge, and down and back up a working lift lock.

All of these physical improvements will help the park tell this new story, the industrial story of the canal and the closing of a transportation route and a Potomac Valley way of life that existed well the Jazz Age.

Superintendent Kevin Brandt stands on the C&O Canal Towpath by the Cushwa Basin in his NPS uniform

The opportunities for heritage tourism and bringing new visitors to Washington County has not been lost on the officials that helped pull these opportunities together, as their comments on the aqueduct funding show.

Park superintendent Kevin Brandt said, “Rehabilitation of the Conococheague Aqueduct will be the centerpiece of the restored cultural landscape in this area of the park, while also creating a premier historical attraction in Williamsport, Maryland. I can think of no better way to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service and prepare us for a second century of service than a project that brings together partners on the federal, state and local level.”

Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf remarked, “This project exemplifies what’s possible when federal, state, and local officials work together towards a common goal. For the Town of Williamsport, this is job creation, revitalization, and historic preservation. We are looking forward to what this project will bring to our town.”

An architect's rendering of the restored Conococheague Aqueduct

These projects would not have been possible without support from the State of Maryland. Funding for the Railroad Lift Bridge was provided through the National Park Service recreation fee program. The new water intake funding was provided by NPS, the Maryland Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), and donations. The restoration of the Conococheague Aqueduct will be funded by the NPS recreation fee program, the Maryland Transportation Alternatives Program, and the Maryland Bikeways program.

We invite you to stop by Williamsport, speak to the volunteers and the rangers on duty, take a ride on the launch boat, and watch for yourself as history comes alive on the Williamsport mile of the C&O Canal!

Photographs, from top: The Conococheague Aqueduct photographed as part of the Historic American Engineering Record in the late 20th century, image from the Library of Congress; the aqueduct draining after wall collapse with boat in creek, 1920, image from CHOH file; superintendent Kevin Brandt on the towpath by the iconic Cushwa Basin and Warehouse building; artist rendering of the restored aqueduct, image by Frederick, Siebert, & Associates, Inc.

Ben Helwig

Contributing Author: Ben Helwig

Ben Helwig is an Interpretive Ranger at C&O Canal National Historical Park in Williamsport, Maryland.  A transplant from Philadelphia via NPS positions in California and Washington, DC, he holds degrees in American Studies (Temple) and Geography (George Mason) and is willing to... Read More