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Park Service sidelines damaged canal boat

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.

Courtesy of the National Park Service
Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.