Park Service sidelines damaged canal boat

Photo by Bill Petros/The Current
The Park Service says The Georgetown has “significant structural deficiencies.”
The Park Service says The Georgetown has “significant structural deficiencies.”

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The mule-drawn canal boat that has taken visitors up and down the C&O Canal in Georgetown for decades is now beached indefinitely near Lock 4, riddled with cracks and beyond repair. This spring, a smaller, battery-powered boat will try to take its place.

National Park Service officials say it would simply cost too much to repair the bigger canal boat, called The Georgetown, although they’re making efforts to help raise the several million dollars they say it would cost to build and operate a new replica.

Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, and Matt Logan, president of the park’s fundraising arm, the C&O Canal Trust, began discussions last week with the Georgetown Business Improvement District about raising private funds to build a new canal boat. Logan told The Current Monday that “there is interest on all sides” to explore the idea. “There’s no doubt it’s an important component of Georgetown.”

In the meantime, all involved agree that the smaller electric boat tested out last summer — and set to begin offering rides in Georgetown sometime this spring — is not the ideal solution.

The Park Service will soon start using a battery-powered boat. (Photo by: Courtesy of the National Park Service) The Park Service will soon start using a battery-powered boat.
The smaller boat (which seats 12) is a replica of canopy-covered boats that took visitors up and down the canal around the turn of the last century. Those boats, officials say, were also battery-powered. But they don’t evoke the history of the canal like the mule-drawn packet boats (seating 70) that hauled coal down the canal during its industrial heyday.

The ride on The Georgetown packet boat, with volunteers and park rangers in period dress telling stories of canal life, was “a very memorable experience,” and “very important to the interpretation of canal,” said the park’s deputy superintendent, Brian Carlstron. The smaller “recreational launches look historic, but are not intended to replace” The Georgetown, he said.

The 1890s reproduction, as regional director Stephen Whitesell put it, “will provide a safe, immersive, albeit different, educational experience for visitors and residents.”

Signage along the canal indicates that 90 percent of its traffic during the peak-use decades of the 19th century consisted of coal-carrying canal boats — like The Georgetown, which now sits rotting on blocks in a de-watered section of the canal between Thomas Jefferson and 31st streets. During the peak years, some 3,000 mules worked on the towpath, hauling those boats between Cumberland and Georgetown.

Some Georgetown residents are unhappy with the replacement boat. Arlette Cahen-Coppock, who lives and runs a hair salon, The Fourth Lock, near the actual fourth lock of the canal, recalls “the best years of The Georgetown, when [the boat] attracted busloads of school children and tourists, and the occasional group of recuperating soldiers from Walter Reed Hospital.”

Now it sits “exposed to the ravages of the weather,” she wrote to park officials in February. “It’s a desolate sight to see, with its belly open and looking abandoned.”

Cahen-Coppock has started a petition drive to “keep a functioning canal barge in Georgetown,” and said she already has more than 200 signatures.

But Carlstrom said saving The Georgetown is not an option. Park rangers knew there were hairline cracks in its fiberglass hull, but an inspection last summer found “significant structural deficiencies” that made it unsafe to use, and it was permanently taken out of service. “Repair would be prohibitively expensive. It would cost more than a new boat,” he said.

There is another ride available in the Maryland segment of the park, a packet boat called The Charles F. Mercer. But The Mercer, too, though an authentic replica, is a passenger boat, not a freight boat that evokes the canal’s original purpose.

Carlstrom said if funds can be raised to build a new canal boat, the Park Service must also find money to staff and operate it before it can be put into service. “It’s a real challenge,” he said, noting that the agency has been almost chronically short of funds in recent years.

And the C&O Canal is a particularly costly strip of parkland to maintain, with periodic storms and floods washing away chunks of the towpath. “There’s 185 miles of needs,” said Logan, president of the park’s fundraising arm. “This [canal boat] is certainly one, a big one. But Georgetown is not being singled out.”

As to The Georgetown itself, park officials say they’re planning to haul it up to Williamsport, Md., for installation as an exhibit.


This article appears in the March 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

0 Comments For This Article

Dave Roffman

A very sad state of affairs. The Georgetown BID must make replacing this barge a priority. Call on the residents of Georgetown, hold fundraisers, get the Francis Scott Key Foundation behind the project. It can be done, Georgetowners have done it before. Raise the money, build a new barge!

Elliott J. Moulton

What a long series of misrepresentations, outright lies and fantasies regarding the Georgetown. First it is not "riddled with cracks" since it is a wooden hull and covered with fiberglas. This is a oommon way to preserve wooden hulls by keeping water away from them. The job of coating the wooden hull was VERY POORLY DONE resulting in the fiberglas pulling away from the wood it is supposed to aghere to. Millions of dollars is the way the government usually described a repair job when they want more funds for a replacement. If you have noticed the boat is resting, quite dry, on a number of concrete supports between Thomas Jefferson and 31st St. you will also have noticed that it is above the water level of the Canal and not only is NOT "rotting away" but has dried out sufficiently to be repaired by a COMPETENT marine company. (It is unclear why the Park Service spent thousands to install these concrete supports since they already had a place for the boat between 29th St. and 30th Street; go check THAT out.) Now at the same time as we are decrying the absence of a real canal boat, they are spending millions replacing Lock 4; for what purpose? To have cute little electric boats puddling around? Then take a look at the brick towpath used by hundreds everyday for walking to work and by joggers; it is a physical danger to life and limb with yards of uneven path, missing bricks and fallen branches littering one's passage. And how about the million dollar house where this effort is located? The electrical connection box facing Thomas Jefferson St. is large enough for a small town,and the decorative woodwork is in a dreadful state of disrepair. The Old Georgetown Board set strict standards for rebuilding the adjacent resident at 1059, while they permit the Park Service to foist this architectural disaster on residents and visitors alike. Little electric boats just won't hack it my friends.FIX THE BOAT, GET THE NULES BACK AND DO IT RIGHT WITHOUT PLEADING POVERTY FOR DISPENSING WITH THE ONLY ATTRACTION THIS LONG EMPTY DITCH BRINGS TO US; THE CANAL BOAT.I do not want my name to be kept private so write me at ELAN@aolcom.

Bill Brown

As a career Park Service employee Brian Carlstrom should be ashamed and his father -- another career Park Service Director -- should be embarrassed that his son would possibly make the statement,

"Carlstrom said if funds can be raised to build a new canal boat, the Park Service must also find money to staff and operate it before it can be put into service. “It’s a real challenge,” he said, noting that the agency has been almost chronically short of funds in recent years."

So, let me get this strait: what are Carl, John, Geoff (the full-time rangers assigned to the Canal in Georgetown... not to mention the numerous volunteers, college interns, seasonal employees, et al.) going to do... sit around and 'interpret' the C&O Canal? "Imagine if you will... an historic, reproduction canal boat, that once traversed the 184.5 miles of the canal from Cumberland to Georgetown..." I think you get the message...

Also, Kevin Brandt has NEVER been a supporter/proponent of interpretive programs which recount this history of the C&O Canal, the families, businesses, boat operators who sustained the canal for nearly 94 years of service. No park superintendent (acting or otherwise) since Doug Ferris has demonstrated any stewardship toward the interpretive programs.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas saw the benefit of the C&O Canal to the extent that he fought to have it preserved as a national park... you'd think that Kevin Brandt, Brian Carlstrom and Matthew Logan -- as so called stewards of the park -- would follow in his footsteps. Obviously, they believe otherwise and have other plans for the park.

I applaud the efforts of Arlette Cahen, the Georgetown BID and the excellent, supportive neighbors of "The Georgetown" in the community. I have been both a volunteer and seasonal employee of the Park Service in Georgetown on the C&O Canal since 2000 and believe me, I've seen it all.

Keep in mind: if the Park Service isn't capable/willing to repair the damage to the Washington Monument resulting from the earthquake without a $7.5 million donation from a private donor, who would think anyone (certainly not the Park Service!) would ever 'invest' in maintaining the canal boat they've operated in Georgetown for the past 25 years... how much money have they put into maintaining it? I can tell you... practically nothing... and I've got documentation to prove it. This is just another effort to extort money from the community that the Park Service should have been spending all along.

Bill Brown, C&O Canal Volunteer and former (not disgruntled!)Seasonal Park Ranger.


There is no evidence battery powered boats were used on the C&O Canal.