Great Falls Tavern
Photo by Efrain Vargas
The little boy was mesmerized by the Jacob’s ladder he found in the cupboard under the stairs. His father couldn’t believe how much history there was to explore right next to the city where he lives and works. His grandfather was intrigued by the 19th-century engineering on display. And his grandmother—well, I had forgotten that frogs start out as tadpoles and buttercups close at night.
We were three generations sampling the life of a lockkeeper on the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal; our team included my husband, Bill; our son-in-law Brian; and our five-year-old grandson, Cullen. Once a trade route between Washington, D.C., and rural western Maryland, the canal is now the heart of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
Opened in 1850, the C&O Canal took 22 years to build and cost $14 million. Running 184.5 miles from the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, it included 74 locks. Barges loaded primarily with coal destined for the Nation’s Capital were pulled by mules moving along the dirt towpath. But by the time it opened, the canal was nearly obsolete. Railroads could cover the same ground faster and more cheaply. After the canal closed to boat traffic in 1924, it sat abandoned until the federal government acquired it in 1938. It became a national park in 1971.
Long and narrow (just 150 feet across at its narrowest point), the C&O Canal park traverses the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Distance is measured in mile markers, from 0 at Georgetown to 184.5 at Cumberland. Main visitor centers are at Great Falls (Mile 14.3), Williamsport (Mile 99.8) and Cumberland (Mile 184.5). While the dirt towpath makes for easy walking and bicycling, there are also 18 hiking trails in the Great Falls area as well as the Paw Paw Tunnel Trail at Mile 156.1.
Most parts of the old canal are overgrown with weeds and grass, but some stretches—at Georgetown, Great Falls and Williamsport—are “watered,” meaning pumps draw water in from the Potomac. Once the park’s replica 1870s packet boat, the Charles F. Mercer, returns to service, visitors will be able to take a ride from Great Falls through a working lock in a boat pulled by mules as rangers in period clothing describe life along the canal in the mid-1800s. In August, the Williamsport Visitor Center was scheduled to begin offering motorized boat rides over the newly restored Conococheague Aqueduct, marking the first time boats have crossed an aqueduct on the C&O Canal in almost 100 years.
A mobile app (C&O Canal Explorer) provides descriptions of more than 600 points of interest in the park, including some 40 “hidden gems” chosen by park rangers. The C&O Canal Trust, the park’s nonprofit partner, has renovated 7 of the canal’s original 64 lockhouses for overnight stays, with each representing a different time period in the history of the canal, from the 1830s to the 1950s. Other lodging options in the park include car-accessible tent campsites, hiker–cyclist tent sites and group campsites.
We explored the area of the park around Great Falls, 14 miles from the start of the canal in Georgetown. Our home base was Lockhouse 10 (Mile 8.8), a handsome two-story fieldstone building. With electricity, indoor plumbing and air conditioning, our lockhouse was one of the more upscale lodgings. As park ranger Geoff Suiter puts it, “Your choice of lockhouse depends on how 19th-century you want your experience to be.” Two lockhouses include full amenities; the others, as he describes, are more like stone tents but are also more representative of lockhouse life during the canal’s heyday.
Lockhouse 10 exemplifies the 1930s, when African American laborers in the Civilian Conservation Corps worked in this area to transform the flood-ravaged canal into a resource worthy of preservation. A binder in the kitchen held recipes for Rice Krispies macaroons, baked salmon and asparagus—all written for 50, 100 and 250 servings. In the living room, books, scrapbooks and posters documented the house’s history. Two rooms upstairs provided rudimentary beds for six. A screened porch looked out over a field of buttercups shimmering in the late April sun.
Courtesy of C&O Canal Trust
After supper and s’mores cooked over the outdoor fire ring, we settled in for games. We found jacks, dominoes, Tiddlywinks and several other games that Cullen had never seen and we adults had long forgotten how to play. (It seemed wrong to look up the rules to dominoes on our smartphones, but we saw no other way.)
Unlocking Life on the Canal
It was the job of the lockkeeper to open the lock at the approach of a boat, see it through safely and close the lock behind it—all in 10 minutes. Most lockkeepers were responsible for one lock, but in some areas where the locks were close together, one lockkeeper might operate two or three. Around Lockhouse 10, there are seven locks within a little more than a mile, so we imagined a very busy lockkeeper living there. It was easy to visit all seven locks, but it took a while with a five-year-old leading the way. We squatted on the bank of the canal to watch tadpoles, stopped frequently to smell wildflowers, and tested every wheel, gate or other mechanism we passed.
Kayakers float by the Conococheague Aqueduct in Williamsport.
Photo by MJ Clingan
We shared the towpath with bicyclists, some of whom were planning to ride the length of the park to Cumberland, pick up the Great Allegheny Passage, and continue all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a trek of some 300 miles. These “through-riders,” Suiter says, make up a good percentage of park users. A long-term goal of the C&O Canal Trust is to turn more lockhouses into lodgings to give those riders more places to stay, a kind of lockhouse “hut to hut” experience similar to the offerings on the Appalachian Trail. For now, cyclists have access every five to seven miles along the towpath to campsites that offer a chemical toilet, a picnic table, a grill and potable water (water available mid-April through mid-November).
During our stay, we attended a talk that Suiter gave at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center on how the locks worked. Lockkeeping was a family affair, he explained, and a 24-hour job. How do you call a lockkeeper in the middle of the night? Suiter demonstrated with a deafening blast on a metal horn. Then we all took a turn pushing the long beam to open the gate of the lock. From the visitor center, it’s an easy quarter-mile walk to Great Falls, a thundering expanse of whitewater you hear long before you see.
To our disappointment, we did not get to experience a mule-drawn boat ride through a lock. When we visited in the spring, the park was emerging from a yearlong restoration, and its canal boat had not yet returned to service. While the Mercer typically operates from April to October, visitors should check the park website (nps.gov/choh) or call the visitor center at 301-767-3714 to confirm its schedule.
Park visitors enjoy petting Eva at the “Meet the Mules” program.
Photo by Ellen Albanese
On the bright side, we got to meet Eva, an extremely well-rested and friendly mule. Ranger Mark Myers, Eva’s handler, told us how to tell when a mule is relaxed (it lifts one back hoof), and Cullen and other young visitors were allowed to pat the docile animal.
Lock talks, guided Great Falls walks and “Meet the Mules” are typically offered on weekends, though all programming depends on available staff. Visitors should ask at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center or check the park website.
Photo courtesy of National Park Services
While the Great Falls section is one of the most popular parts of the park, there is much more to see and do along the site’s 185 miles and some 20,000 acres. Whites Ferry (Mile 35.5), Harpers Ferry (Mile 60.8) and Antietam Creek (Mile 69.6) will appeal to Civil War buffs. Cushwa Basin in Williamsport (Mile 99.8) is one of the few places where a canal boat could turn around. Built with more than six million bricks, the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel (Mile 155.2) is considered an engineering marvel.
The C&O Canal Scenic Byway, a 236-mile drive on country roads and state highways, closely follows the edge of the park and passes many entry points. We took it 14 miles upstream to Rileys Lock and the Seneca Aqueduct, the canal’s only lift lock/aqueduct combo, and tried to imagine a boat loaded with 125 tons of coal gliding over the aqueduct to avoid the impact of Seneca Creek rushing into the canal.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.