Boomer Opinion: History gets lost with so much neglect

Baby boomers, like most others, have had time these past few months to do things they never otherwise got to do. That’s why BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson made a trip to a favorite place from his childhood… and was saddened by what he saw: neglect.

My wife and I have approached the Covid-19 pandemic seriously, sticking pretty much at home ever since March. We’ve worn masks and gloves during the few times we’ve venture out. Our neighbors are of similar mindset, and we keep our six-foot distances out of an abundance of caution while visiting anyone or anything.

Life has been quiet and limited to walks in our local area… aside from some wonderful Zoom calls with friends near and far.

But the weather has been so spectacular this time of year in the Washington, D.C. area, that I have been tempted outdoors. My excuse is to further my passion for photography. A recent trip was to visit an historic canal nearby.

Lock 6 of the C&O Canal.

As a kid growing up near Washington, I remember that the old abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio canal— the C&O in shorthand— was a relic from the country’s past, usually taken totally for granted. Sure, the towpath, which originally was created so that mules could pull the boats through (at the worm’s pace of about two miles per hour), was a place for strolls on nice days… except for washouts or fallen trees or floods or tangled vines. The canal itself has always been a mess, unlike similar canals I’ve enjoyed in England and Europe. Maybe that’s why its nickname is the Grand Old Ditch.

England’s bustling Grand Union Canal.
Photo by Barney Leith

In England, by contrast, the 137-mile-long Grand Union Canal, although built in 1814, is actively used to this day for narrow canal boats, for pleasure craft, even for swimming, fishing, and tourism.

Back in 1963, Robert Kennedy, younger brother of the president, reprised attention to the C&O Canal as well as to the importance of physical conditioning by taking a highly publicized 50-mile walk from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, to the nation’s capital. To demonstrate his physical grit, he did the hike in the middle of winter, and I think he did the 50 miles in two days. It was a heck of a feat that required considerable skill because the towpath was a wreck.

Than-Attorney General Robert Kennedy walks in snow beside the C&O Canal in 1963 to call attention to an active lifestyle and history.

While there have been countless citizens on countless hikes in the intervening years and the towpath has been maintained (more or less), the canal itself has become a neglected and discarded place, almost a forgotten footnote in America’s history.

I thought about its history as I visited some of the canal locks a few miles west of Washington. Neglect has taken a seemingly irreparable toll. And, I lay blame at the feet of the National Park Service.

Pool of stagnant water above Lock 6.

Pools of water above locks are covered with foul-smelling green algae and half-submerged plastic bottles. Below the locks are muddy swamps of weeds, mosquitoes, snakes, and the occasional heron.

An entrance to an abandoned lock is clogged by vines.

Access footpaths down to the canal from nearby parking lots are washed-out, deteriorated, and far from being handicapped-accessible or even remotely easy for younger families with children and strollers.

Lock keeper’s house. Located above Lock 10.

It’s just a canal with a few old buildings still standing and the towpath where the mules once toiled. But it’s also a monument of sorts to hopes and dreams and engineering achievements in America, only about 50 years after the country was formed.

The rusted machinery that once operated a lock.

Construction on the canal began in 1828, when America was still in its infancy. It was an enormous undertaking, even by today’s standards, let alone those of the 19th Century. Its primary purpose was to facilitate the transport of coal eastward, from the mountains of West Virginia to stoves and furnaces in Washington, and to carry supplies and settlers on the return trip westward.

The towpath next to the overgrown canal.

To compensate for the elevation change of 605 feet from Washington to Cumberland, Maryland, 74 manually operated canal locks and eleven aqueducts were built. I can’t imagine all the manual pick-and-shovel labor that went into the project. It wasn’t finished until 1850. But by then, a railroad had been built, providing faster transportation and making the still-new canal nearly obsolete.

Remnants of a lock at the C&O Canal near Washington, its sides held up with timbers to reduce risk of collapse.

Unlike England and Europe, where respect for the value for canal use has evolved over years, the C&O Canal has mostly become a discarded ditch, littered with rubbish. Long forgotten as a priority or a place of usefulness.

The C&O Canal today is a metaphor for the nation’s infrastructure neglect, its historical preservation neglect, and its shameful human neglect.

Photos by David Henderson except England’s Grand Union Canal by Barney Leith.

3 Comments

  1. I remember walking along the canal when I lived in Maryland going to school and then working for several years with the government in the 1970’s.
    The river walk and canal were a favorite to ride bikes and walk. Even then you could tell it was not getting the case and attention it deserved. Thank David, you brought back fond memories and highlighted a glaring problem emblematic of the state our nation finds itself in.

  2. So sorry to see the C & O Canal so badly neglected. Here in the UK (in all four nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) the canals are actively used for leisure, as David points out, and are a major source of pleasure for very many people. There are YouTube channels with videos by people who live permanently on their narrowboats and cruise for much of the year. Canals cover much of England, passing through industrial areas, historic areas, and beautiful rural scenery; and some link to river navigations. There are support groups for a number of the more neglected canals, which are being restored and put back into water. There are many flourishing canalside businesses – boatyards, pubs, cafes, shops, museums – and plenty of companies that rent out boats for a week or more. It’s a truly wonderful way to take a vacation!

  3. I liked your post and as you know, the canal is in bad shape but the blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the National Park Service. All our nation’s parks are severely under-funded even the ones that get the most use. The C&O, especially west of DC gets a lot of use and is a really delightful walk in the woods on a well maintained path. The portions of the canal just above and below Great Falls are usually watered in order to maintain the integrity of the prism as well as its historic nature. The NPS de-waters the prism in the winter to protect it from ice damage and some degree of liability for those who would play on the ice when it freezes. Sure, there are weeds, snakes, deer, ticks, and the canal locks and weirs don’t all function, but the blame is really on Mother Nature and her Potomac River floods. These floods regularly wash out sections of the towpath. This and the railroad are the two primary reasons the canal failed as a commercial enterprise. In contrast, the canals of Europe and England do not suffer this as much and they can be used for travel and boating. Marti and I live and walk on the C&O several times a week and have often wished the entire length could be watered and used as a recreation and tourist destination, but the funding for this will never, ever be available and so the NPS works with what it has to do what it can. I and everyone I know who is fortunate enough to live close by the C&O appreciate what a jewel we have and love it and its history.

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