Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
The Making of a Park
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The passing of the deed on September 28, 1938, did not give the National Park Service a vacant piece of property nor end all dealings with the C & O Canal Company. Matters involving canal occupants, water users, records, and lands remained to be addressed.

As noted previously, the receivers for the canal company agreed to arrange for the removal of all persons on canal property before the government took title, unless the secretary of the interior permitted certain ones to remain. When NPS Acting Director Hillory A. Tolson returned the signed sales contract to Assistant General Counsel Daniel Willard, Jr., of the B & O Railroad on August 8, he suggested that the railroad move promptly to comply with this provision "because of the large number of occupants on the canal property at the present time." [1] About 180 tenants then used canal lands and structures under various leases and licenses. [2]

The Park Service soon thought better about pressing for wholesale eviction, realizing that this would be bad for public relations and unnecessary where continued occupancy would not interfere with immediate development plans. Arrangements were made to have most occupants remain under NPS special use permits, normally good for a year. When they asked about their long-term status, the standard reply was soothing: "While we are not in a position to make specific commitments with regard to existing occupancies . . . you may rest assured that it is not our desire to impose hardships on individual occupants, and that careful consideration will be given to requests for extensions or renewals of special use permits . . . ." [3]

Some of the occupants were superannuated canal company locktenders and maintenance employees. The oldest was J. H. Speaker, 88, in the Lock 11 lockhouse at Cabin John. John S. Sigafoose, 85, had tended Lock 30 at Brunswick. Charles Shaffer, 82, occupied the lockhouse at Lock 7. Sylvester Pennifield, 80, had been a foreman overseeing the Georgetown locks. Sam Taylor, 78, occupied the Four Locks lockhouse near Big Spring. Mrs. A. L. Violette, 77, resided at Lock 23 below Seneca. Charles Stewart, 76, occupied the lockhouse at Lock 14, uppermost of the "Seven Locks" at Cabin John. Julia King lived in the frame lockhouse at Lock 5 and continued to operate the adjoining inlet gate supplying water to the Georgetown mills. [4]

The Park Service obtained approval from the secretary of the interior's office to hire these and 27 other former canal company employees through the end of the fiscal year from the $500,000 balance of the PWA allotment. Their employment was justified by the need to keep water flowing into Georgetown and to protect the canal above, but in most instances it was a matter of charity. B & O president Willard commended Secretary Ickes for "the fair and even generous policy which . . . you have adopted toward those persons who have heretofore occupied otherwise unused portions of Canal lands, for houses, camp sites, etc., and towards the employees of the Canal, all of whom have served the Canal for many years, are no longer young, and doubtless would have difficulty in securing employment elsewhere." [5] Few if any of the former canal employees remained on the government payroll after mid-1939, but those living on canal property were permitted to stay.

When the government acquired the canal, two Georgetown companies were still leasing canal water for power. The Wilkins-Rogers Milling Company and the District of Columbia Paper Mills held a total of nine leases dating from 1887, with annual rent totaling $23,067.80. [6] The Park Service now collected this rent for the federal treasury. Wilkins-Rogers continued to use and pay for canal water into the 1960s.

The other major commercial patron of the canal company at the time of sale was the Potomac Edison Company, which used Dams 4 and 5 of the canal for power generation. Potomac Edison had rebuilt Dam 4 after the 1936 flood. Its agreement with the canal company remained in effect with the Park Service, yielding another $1,500 per year to the federal treasury. The power company was required to repair and maintain the two dams, an arrangement deemed of such benefit to the government that the annual fee was dropped in 1973. [7] Potomac Edison continues to use and maintain the dams.

When the editor of George Washington's papers at the Library of Congress learned that the government would acquire the C & O Canal, he wrote to urge that the records of the canal company—which included the records of its predecessor, George Washington's Potomac Company—be made part of the purchase and deposited in the Library of Congress. [8] The first part of his request was carried out. By January 1939 the Park Service held a large mass of records, most of which were stored with the mechanical equipment between the fifth and sixth floors of the Interior Building. A clerk was detailed to arrange some six hundred bundles of loose correspondence into manila file folders. Other canal company records went to the NPS Branch of Historic Sites office in the same building. Using these and other sources, NPS historians T. Sutton Jett and Rogers W. Young began to conduct research and prepare reports to support restoration of the canal and interpretation of its history and significance to the public. [9]

Ronald F. Lee, supervisor of the Branch of Historic Sites, was concerned about the condition of the records. "As might be expected many of the documents are now greatly in need of repair, and all should be treated to prevent further deterioration," he noted. "The heat, and the dry and varying temperature of floor 5-1/2 is hardly a proper place for loose manuscripts ranging in age from one hundred to one hundred forty years." He urged their relocation to the National Archives. NPS Director Arno B. Cammerer and Secretary Ickes approved, and the transfer took place that May. Jett and Young moved with the records, setting up shop in the East Search Room on the second floor of the National Archives building. [10]

When the records were first received, the historians found that some expected and needed items were missing, including early engineering and construction drawings. Asked about them, Daniel Willard, Jr., mentioned the loss of some records in a 1904 fire at the home of Sen. Arthur P. Gorman, a former canal company president. The B & O did turn over two more minute books containing proceedings of the stockholders and the president and directors. The bulk of missing material was later discovered at the Security Storage Company in Washington and delivered to the National Archives. [11]

When the Park Service transferred the canal records to the National Archives, it retained the right to permit or refuse public access to them. In 1944 the Archives sought removal of this restriction on grounds that the wartime relocation of Service headquarters to Chicago made access requests difficult to process. But the Interior Department solicitor continued to oppose free access. "While the records may contain material of historic value, nevertheless it is believed that the interests of the United States are of primary importance," he argued. "The reason for requiring the restriction was to prevent interlopers from claiming title to land acquired by the United States from the canal company. In order to avoid such controversies, therefore, it is considered necessary and in the best interests of the United States to continue this restriction." The communications problem was resolved by authorizing the NPS liaison officer in Washington, Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray, to act on applications for access to the records. [12]

The policy of denying land claimants access to public records that might support their claims continued into the 1960s. When NPS Chief Historian Robert M. Utley proposed an end to the restriction in 1967, the NPS regional office overseeing the canal still argued in its favor. But the solicitor's office now felt otherwise. Associate Solicitor Bernard R. Meyer informed the regional director that the existence of adverse claimants was no justification for restricting public access, especially in view of the recent Freedom of Information Act. The regional office yielded and discontinued the policy in January 1968. [13]

The principal unfinished business between the government and the B & O Railroad (nominally, the receivers of the C & O Canal Company) related to the canal lands reserved by the railroad and the Mole area in Georgetown. The Park Service was worried about its future inability to restore and rewater the canal above Point of Rocks if the railroad filled into the canal bed for new track. Of particular concern were the reservations of 4.5 acres affecting 2.54 miles between Point of Rocks and Harpers Ferry and six acres covering 3.65 miles between Big Pool and Cumberland. For its part, the B & O, foreseeing increased business from new government construction in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, had second thoughts about losing its tracks on the nearby Mole and revenues from the cement plants there that were slated for removal by September 1940.

In October 1939 Roger S. B. Hartz, one of the B & O's receivers for the canal company, proposed exchanging the reservations desired by the Park Service for the Georgetown property and easement acquired by the Service. Hartz noted that the easement, which would limit the height of structures on the B & O's Parcel G to twenty feet effective September 1940, would eliminate the sixty-foot cement elevators of the Standard Lime & Stone and Lehigh Portland Cement companies operating there under lease. "This would place a serious handicap on the handling of material for concrete to be used in construction work in the District, if not compel the removal of suppliers of such material, to the great detriment of the Baltimore and Ohio, and possibly increasing appreciably the cost of work in the District," he warned. [14]

Park Service and National Capital Park and Planning Commission officials opposed the exchange. NCP&PC Chairman Frederic A. Delano maintained that "the present nuisance industries on the Mole should be eliminated as soon as possible, as they are without question a detriment to the development and enjoyment of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. " They also questioned the dollar comparability of the Mole and the reservations in view of the B & O's gross annual revenues approximating $1 million from the Mole leases. They were willing to let the railroad and its tenants remain for up to five more years in exchange for the reservations. But Hartz held out for fee title to the Mole area. If the government declined his proposal, he observed, the Park Service would not only be unable to restore important sections of the canal, it might find the railroad uncooperative in other matters of mutual interest. [15]

NPS Associate Director Demaray gave Secretary Ickes a status report on the negotiations in April 1940. Discounting the problem posed by the B & O's reservations, he recommended holding firm on Mole ownership while suggesting a lesser consideration from the railroad for its extended occupancy:

It seems improbable that we will ever completely restore the waterway for barge purposes due to the recurring floods and extremely heavy maintenance costs. Until the railroad builds its additional tracks, which also is questionable, the existing canal could be filled with water, but the railroad is taking the position that it would be necessary to flood a portion of their lands for which legal authority would have to be secured from the railroad. Otherwise it would be necessary to build an extensive retaining wall. . . .

It is recommended that you do not approve such an exchange of land [as proposed by Hartz] and instruct the National Park Service to advise the Railroad Company that the industries on the Mole wharf be removed September 23, 1940.

It is also recommended that you authorize the Park Service to attempt to negotiate, with the railroad, a five-year extension permit of railroad tracks on the Mole property in exchange for an easement to flood a portion of the reserved lands of the railroad in the event it is ever desired to put water in the existing canal between Point of Rocks and Cumberland, and until such time as the railroad builds its additional tracks, which we believe will not be done. [16]

Hartz was willing to consider the easement in exchange for permission to keep the railroad tracks on the Mole for seven more years and to move a cement elevator there to Parcel G and retain it and the two already there for the same period. [17] But the longer term was unacceptable to the government, and negotiations dragged on. The McGuire & Rolfe asphalt plant vacated the end of the Mole in May 1941, eight months late. Amid growing preparations for national defense, however, the cement companies on the west end of the Mole and Parcel G were allowed to remain. America's entry into World War II in December extended their reprieve. In the end, the Mole was not fully cleared and the twenty-foot height restriction on Parcel G was not fully enforced until the 1950s. [18]

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The Mole and tidelock
The Mole and tidelock (left), c. 1940.

View through tidelock
View through tidelock to Potomac River, c. 1940.

The government did favorably conclude negotiations on some other outstanding issues during the remainder of 1941 and into 1942. It received fee title to the canal under the railroad overpass near Arizona Avenue in Washington, which had mistakenly been reserved for the railroad in lieu of an intended easement. Because the Western Maryland Railway no longer wished to purchase twelve reserved areas between Harpers Ferry and Cumberland, these were conveyed to the government subject to their continued use by the railroad. [19]

But there was no agreement on the most critical reservations below Harpers Ferry. Under the most favorable interpretation of the slope clause affecting them (page 18), the government would be able to approve the outer limits of any fill slopes—even to the point of requiring a vertical "slope" with artificial support—to preserve a waterway sufficient for canal purposes. The railroad disputed this interpretation, especially if it would be required to bear the expense of retaining walls. Negotiations on the subject terminated in September 1941 with the understanding that the rights of the parties would have to be adjudicated in court if and when the government started restoring the canal or the railroad started widening its roadbed in these areas. [20]

In 1949 the B & O began to dump earth, ballast, and cinders into the canal between Point of Rocks and Brunswick, both within and outside its reserved areas, without seeking or obtaining the government's prior approval. By that time the Park Service had abandoned any thought of restoring the canal in favor of another development concept that would require its extensive filling. It therefore permitted the B & O to continue this activity through the mid-1950s. [21] Outside the narrow Point of Rocks and Catoctin railroad tunnels, where the B & O later rerouted one of the double tracks that had gone through the tunnels, the fill constricted the canal to a V-shaped cross section as little as nine feet across and three feet deep. Once again the railroad buried the canal—this time literally.

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Last Updated: 11-Oct-2004