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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.