Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
The Making of a Park
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President Franklin D. Roosevelt had approved the purchase of the C & O Canal with public works funds as an unemployment relief measure. The National Park Service was under pressure to justify that rationale with results. Even before the government took title, Park Service officials sought permission from the B & O Railroad to begin restoration and improvement work with Civilian Conservation Corps camps under their supervision. [1]

The first of two CCC camps assigned to the canal, designated NP-1, was established June 18, 1938, and operated until April 1, 1942; the second, NP-2, operated from October 5, 1938, to November 15, 1941. Both camps were located on land acquired for the George Washington Memorial Parkway between the canal and the river near Carderock, Maryland. With the CCC following local custom regarding racial segregation, all enrollees in these camps were black. "Major" Lewis G. Heider, who had been acting superintendent of Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi since 1933, came to the National Capital Parks (NCP) office of the Park Service in July 1938 to superintend the work of the CCC, NPS staff, and contractors on the canal project.

The work program, known officially as Federal Project 712, provided for rehabilitation of the canal and recreational developments from Georgetown to Seneca, Maryland. Plans called for repairing or replacing masonry walls and timber gates in 23 locks; constructing stone retaining walls and dams and repairing the towpath and dikes in the Widewater area below Great Falls; providing water and sewer systems, parking and picnic areas, and refreshment and canoe rental concessions at Great Falls; building flood control structures at the Foundry Branch spillway; clearing the canal channel and repairing the towpath throughout; repairing selected lockhouses; recording all historic structures with architectural drawings; undertaking necessary boundary surveys; collecting historical data; establishing a fishing program; and planning additional recreational developments at Georgetown, Carderock, and Great Falls. [2]

Lock 20 and the Great Falls Tavern
Lock 20 and the Great Falls Tavern, c. 1938.

"Continued operation of the old tavern at Great Falls is contemplated under lease or concession on a basis somewhat more like its original use," the Park Service announced upon its acquisition. "In recent years the old tavern has continued to provide chicken dinners as of old, but in some respects it has assumed more the atmosphere of a 'hot dog' and refreshment stand on the outside." [3] By early 1939 the projected food concession had shifted to the upper deck of the planned canoe rental facility opposite the tavern, which was now to be renovated as a public contact and administration building. When an architect and an engineer closely inspected the tavern in late 1940, however, they found it unsafe for any occupancy. The joists, sills, and flooring were rotted and near collapse, the rear upstairs porch was severely decayed, the plaster throughout was loose and falling, and the wiring constituted a fire hazard. They recommended that the contents be removed, the electricity be disconnected, and the building be closed pending its complete rehabilitation. [4]

During the project planning in November 1938, John Nolen, Jr., planning director for the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, expressed concern about the effect of canal rehabilitation on land acquisition for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. "I think we have all recognized that the improvement of the Canal would make it more expensive to buy the adjoining property," he wrote NCP&PC Chairman Frederic A. Delano and NPS Director Arno B. Cammerer. "In order to minimize this effect, I have suggested to Mr. [C. Marshall] Finnan [NCP superintendent] that the first work at least be confined to the area around Great Falls and farther up stream, to give us as much time as possible to work out our program in the metropolitan area." [5]

Nolen's account of a subsequent meeting with Finnan and other NPS officials indicated acceptance of his suggestion: "On behalf of the Commission I emphasized the fact that the Canal below Great Falls is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and its development should be planned in connection with the larger project. Also, that it was important in the realization of this plan that in the lower section where the Commission proposes to acquire adjoining land, not to encourage speculation activity particularly by undue publicity. As the major schedule of operations is to be progressive down stream from Seneca, this will postpone to some extent the development program in the area where the Commission has the problem of acquiring adjacent land." [6]

The concern about publicity in the lower section did not rule out a ceremony calling attention to the canal's rehabilitation, held at Lock 1 on Washington's Birthday 1939. Among those present were Delano, Finnan, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman, retired lockkeepers Sylvester Pennifield and Charles Stewart, and Mutt, a 38-year-old canal mule who towed a barge containing the U.S. Navy Band from Rock Creek into the lock. Arthur Godfrey was master of ceremonies for the program, which was broadcast on local radio. [7]

Ceremony at Lock 1, February 22, 1939. (GSA's Plant now occupies area to right of lock.)

The CCC enrollees had begun work by clearing trees, other vegetation, and accumulated debris from the dry canal bed above Lock 5. Their activities prompted the first of repeated complaints over the years about the destructive effects of canal rehabilitation on the natural surroundings. An unhappy citizen relayed the observations of two hikers in the Carderock area: "These men are apparently cleaning out the bed of the C & O Canal but the devastation they have wrought in all the surrounding woods is appalling. My friends say that they have cut down the trees over large areas and seem to have taken all sizes, good and bad. It seemed to them that the destruction was for the purpose of supplying fuel for the camps; and probably construction work in the camps. If that is the reason for the slaughter, then we can expect increasing devastation as the camps move up the Canal. . . . I know very well that consternation will prevail among the hiking clubs of Washington when they learn what is going on up there." [8]

Edmund B. Rogers, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park then temporarily assigned to NPS headquarters, visited the camps with Lewis Heider and Robert M. Coates, the CCC coordinator for National Capital Parks. He reported that although some clearing had necessarily occurred, it had been minimized. The camps burned coal, requiring no wood for fuel. They appeared raw and disorderly only because they were new. They would quickly be put in good order to avoid further criticism. [9]

CCC reconstruction of Lock 15
CCC reconstruction of Lock 15, April 4, 1940.

Soon afterward, in early 1939, the first organization representing public interest in the canal was formed under the auspices of the Advisory Board of the Conduit Road [later MacArthur Boulevard] in Cabin John. The Civic C & O Committee was chaired by Paul Bartsch of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia; other members included P. L. Ricker of the Wildflower Preservation Society and George H. Collingswood of the American Forestry Society. According to an NPS representative attending a committee meeting one evening that December, they "had so much fun discussing developments of the canal that they did not adjourn until after midnight." Of particular concern to the members was better enforcement of regulations against hunting and removal of plants. [10]

Work on the canal proceeded expeditiously. By February 1940 the 23 locks from Georgetown to the inlet at Violettes Lock had been returned to operating condition. The stonework of some had required only minor resetting and repointing; others had been completely reconstructed. All had received new wooden gates, with ironwork salvaged from the old ones and from locks further up the canal. At Widewater a large break from the 1936 flood (requiring some 30,000 cubic yards of fill), two small dams, and some rubble wall had been repaired by the Corson & Gruman Company under a $101,000 contract. In addition to clearing the channel, the CCC had repaired lesser breaks and surface wash elsewhere along the towpath and would proceed to develop picnic areas at Carderock and Great Falls. Corson & Gruman received another contract for $15,500 in March to reconstruct the spillway at Foundry Branch, just above Georgetown, and to raise the walls of Lock 5 to the height of the adjoining concrete dam for flood control. [11]

Lock 5 and lockhouse
Lock 5 and lockhouse before rehabilitation, 1939. (House demolished 1957 for parkway.)

The lockhouses at Locks 5, 7, and 10 were upgraded during 1939 with modern plumbing, heating, and electrical systems and dormer windows in their attics. The Lock 5 lockhouse, occupied by Julia King, was the second at its location—a frame structure on a stone basement dating from 1853. In addition to the mechanical improvements, its exterior was largely rebuilt over the existing frame. The stone house at Lock 7 had been completed in August 1829, making it the first on the canal. After rehabilitation it became the home of NCP Chief Naturalist Donald Edward McHenry and his family. An occupied log house just south of the Great Falls Tavern, built about 1884 and used by locktenders there, received lesser improvements. [12]

Historians T. Sutton Jett and Rogers W. Young labored meanwhile in the National Archives on the C & O Canal Company records. By January 1940 they had filled four large file boxes with bibliographic and subject notes from that massive collection and from relevant sources in other area repositories. Young completed a 37-page "preliminary historical memorandum" on the dimensions and construction of the canal to Seneca, a 19-page memorandum on the construction of lockhouses to Seneca, and a 14-page article on the general development of the canal. Jett and Young together turned out a ninety-page study on the Great Falls area from 1858 to 1880 and a 225-page monograph on canal commerce in Georgetown to 1860. [13]

Lock 7 and lockhouse
Lock 7 and lockhouse after restoration, 1943.

On June 28, 1940, Secretary Ickes advised Frederic Delano that the restored portion of the canal would be ready for rewatering on July 20. "It is understood that land acquisition officials of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission fear that the operation of the canal in the area between Little Falls and Great Falls will result in increased valuations being placed upon adjacent lands which are to be acquired for the proposed George Washington Memorial Parkway," Ickes wrote. But he disagreed that stalling would make much difference, and he was loath to deny the public use of the rewatered canal during the summer season. "Unless you have some opinion to the contrary, I propose to instruct the National Park Service to turn water into the canal upon its completion," he concluded. [14]

Delano requested and was granted a delay of "two or three weeks" to help the NCP&PC complete the most important purchases. On August 2 the commission voted to offer no further objection to rewatering. At the same time, it suggested posting the canal boundary to make clear that adjoining owners had no legal right of access, as they would to a road. This, it was hoped, would help avoid commercialization and further enhancement of land values near Great Falls where some parkway land remained unacquired. [15]

On August 9, an Interior Department press release announced that water was flowing into the inlet lock below Seneca, so that the previously dry portion down to Lock 5 would be full for public use on August 17. Canoeists soon joined hikers and bicyclists along this scenic stretch. On September 24-25 three members of the Washington Evening Star newspaper staff accompanied NPS photographer Abbie Rowe and Donald McHenry on an overnight canoe trip from Seneca to Georgetown—a journey given prominent publicity in the October 13 Star.

Although all locks had been restored to operating condition, Lock 20 at Great Falls Tavern was the only one actually operated for the Star party and on other special occasions. Canoeists normally had to portage around the locks, an awkward situation that prompted McHenry and a few others to advocate some kind of mechanical device for the purpose. Sutton Jett dissented. He thought any such apparatus would be unsightly and suggested waiting to see whether canoe use might increase enough to justify operation of the locks for a small fee. His larger concern was that the historical values of the canal were being subordinated to recreational development and use. In his view, the visitor parking and concessions installed close to the canal at Great Falls and the paddle boats rented there by the Welfare and Recreational Association (predecessor of Guest Services Inc.) were unwarranted intrusions on the historic canal scene. [16] Whether or not in deference to Jett's opinion, no portaging devices were added.

The priority given recreation was reflected in the title administratively applied to the watered section: "Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Recreational Waterway." In November 1940 NCP Acting Superintendent Francis F. Gillen requested official approval of that designation along with formal transfer of the section from NCP&PC's books to the national capital parks system. [17]

Rudy Kauffmann and Elwood Baker of Evening Star, Abbie Rowe and Donald E. McHenry of NPS below Pennyfield Lock (Lock 22), September 24, 1940.

In response, NPS Acting Associate Director Hillory A. Tolson explained the interim status of the bureau's relationship to the canal. The Park Service was still serving as the agency designated by the Public Works Administration to undertake the canal's development as a public works project. Although the project was largely complete, the bureau's attorneys recommended that none of the canal property be incorporated into the national capital parks system until all outstanding issues with the receivers of the C & O Canal Company were resolved. Tolson approved continuation of the "recreational waterway" administrative designation and promised that upon conclusion of negotiations with the receivers, NCP&PC would transfer an appropriate part of the canal to the national capital parks system. "The remaining portion of the canal property will thereafter be designated as a historic site," he wrote. [18]

This suggested that only the unrestored canal above Seneca would be treated primarily as a historic rather than a recreational resource. Sympathizing with Jett, Ronald F. Lee, the NPS chief historian, recommended having the secretary of the interior designate the entire canal as a national historic site. National historic site designation, he argued, was warranted by the historical significance of the canal; it would rank the canal with other properties so titled; it would help prevent uses contrary to the general policies for national park system areas; and it would aid in securing regular appropriations for administration, protection, maintenance, and interpretation. [19]

Lee maintained that the designation need not remove the canal from National Capital Parks. At that time, however, NCP administered or contained no national historic sites or other areas bearing "national" labels and classed as discrete units of the national park system. Although it had numerous constituent parts, NCP was a single unit of the system headed by a single superintendent. A national historic site within or under NCP would not square with contemporary practice. As a result, it was decided that only "a suitable portion of the canal to be determined by existing administrative and historical requirements" would be recommended to the secretary for designation if the secretary's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments found it nationally significant. [20]

Having visited the canal while meeting in Washington in October 1941, the board members were polled on the question by mail in February 1942. All who responded were favorable. A month later, however, President Roosevelt declared a moratorium on further national historic site designations for the duration of the war. [21] The matter was dropped.

Although the canal did not become a national historic site, the Park Service obtained Secretary Ickes's permission to place a "national historical marker" where it entered Rock Creek in Georgetown. This plaque was patterned on those installed at national historic sites and contained a brief statement of the canal's history and significance. The District of Columbia chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution financed the plaque, which was formally accepted in a ceremony at the site on June 20, 1942. [22]

Planning for an extensive system of interpretive exhibits on the canal's history had begun in late 1939. Sutton Jett envisioned "long and detailed narrative markers" at frequent intervals along the restored section. "The long twenty-three mile towpath, and the many points of access and visitor concentration, demand a large number of markers if the story is to be adequately told to all visitors, and if the system is to hold the attention of the hiker and canoeist," he wrote Ronald Lee. "For only four markers to a mile almost a hundred legends will be required." [23]

Mercifully, Jett's proposal was pared down to 14 poster-sized narrative exhibits, installed in September 1943. Even these were short-lived, however. "The design and type of marker used was well received, and this office had high hopes for this method of relating the history of the canal," NCP Assistant Superintendent Harry T. Thompson reported in 1950. "Unfortunately, vandalism has made it necessary to almost abandon the marker program. Nowhere in the National Capital Park system has the public shown such little regard for park signs as along the towpath of the canal." [24] The Great Falls Tavern was then undergoing the wholesale rehabilitation called for a decade earlier and would assume the major burden of historical interpretation when museum exhibits were installed there in 1951.

Recreation and interpretation were combined when mule-drawn barge trips were inaugurated in July 1941. Operated by the Welfare and Recreational Association, Canal Clipper boarded passengers in Georgetown, passed through Lock 4, and ran as far as Lock 5 before returning. This was one of the first "living history" programs under Park Service auspices, although the barge bore little resemblance to those used historically. The excursions were popular and attracted much favorable publicity for the canal. [25]

Less popular among some Georgetown residents was the trash marring the canal there. The NCP office received numerous complaints about this situation but found it difficult to deal with. Litter floating down from the feeder lock and deposited by canal neighbors was inevitable, Francis Gillen told one persistent critic. "It must be remembered that the canal in the Georgetown area is operated as a commercial waterway [for the mills] and not for its scenic or park value," he added, notwithstanding the recent introduction of the barge trips there. [26]

T. Sutton Jett
Historian T. Sutton Jett interpreting canal to barge passengers, 1941.

Canal Clipper
Canal Clipper passes Abner Cloud House, June 8, 1945.

Another recreational activity that the Park Service sought to promote was fishing. When it became known that the Service would acquire the canal, Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper wrote Ickes on behalf of his department's Bureau of Fisheries to urge his active support of angling and fish propagation. Responding for Ickes, Oscar Chapman declared that the Service recognized the canal's fishing possibilities and would cooperate with the Bureau of Fisheries to make the most of them. The bureaus concluded a memorandum of agreement on the subject in July 1939. [27]

Edwin L. Green, Jr., an assistant wildlife technician with the NPS Wildlife Division, worked during 1939 on a fish program for the section of the canal under restoration. He proposed developing fish rearing ponds between Locks 14 and 15 and at a marsh by the canal below Widewater, grading the canal bed at Spring Branch (above Great Falls) and above Muddy Branch (near Pennyfield Lock) for additional shallow water on the berm side, and creating a food fish rearing pond in the canal bed above Violettes Lock (the upper limit of rewatering). "The construction of this one item [the food fish pond] probably would do more to hold the friendship of fisherman that are interested in the canal than anything else," Green declared. [28]

Green left the Park Service early in 1940, however, and little was done to follow through on his recommendations. By November 1941 the canal was judged unsuitable for breeding game fish (perhaps from the realization that it remained subject to flooding and would have to be drained periodically for repairs). NCP then planned to stock it that winter at Widewater and above Great Falls with fish large enough for harvest during the coming year. The war intruded, but the plan was finally carried out in 1946 when the Fish and Wildlife Service stocked the canal with bass, crappie, sunfish, bluegills, and perch. [29]

In September 1944 the Park Service permitted the Maryland Game and Inland Fish Commission to impound water in the canal between Town Creek and Lock 71 in Oldtown, a distance of 4.6 miles. The resulting ponds, constructed in 1945, became known as Battie Mixon's Fishing Hole after the Allegany County game warden who conceived the idea and directed the volunteer sportsmen who did the work. They were stocked by the state. With NPS permission, the Oldtown Sportsmen's Club made additional improvements to the area in later years and sponsored an annual fishing "rodeo." [30]

Beyond occasional patrols by the U.S. Park Police and inspection trips by other NCP representatives, the Park Service itself did little with the upper canal. From the beginning of Service involvement, some bureau officials and western Marylanders expressed concern about the low priority given the great majority of the resource. The secretary of the Izaak Walton League chapter in Brunswick, learning that the canal would be restored only below Seneca, urged that rewatering be extended up to the next dam at Harpers Ferry. In 1939 Howard E. Rothrock, NPS acting chief naturalist, recommended restoration of the entire canal. "It has been stated that nothing in or near Washington can compare in potential outdoor nature educational opportunities with the canal as a whole ...," he wrote. "Stopping the geologic, biologic, and historic stories at Seneca is comparable to an arbitrary conclusion of a textbook at the end of the first few chapters. The upper regions of the canal penetrate life zones and geologic formations which are needed for the complete understanding of the area traversed between portions below Seneca." [31]

The National Capital Parks office was already receiving complaints about mosquito breeding and odors from stagnant water, sewage, and other dumping in the upper reaches of the canal. In August 1939 NCP Acting Superintendent Frank T. Gartside sought to determine the official Park Service position on the future of the canal above Seneca. NPS Acting Director John R. White was unhelpful. "The general policy to be followed appears to be not yet clearly defined," he replied. Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray confirmed White's impression: "We had never developed a policy but had intended that after the work to Seneca is completed we would study the possibilities beyond that point." [32]

White solicited Frederic Delano's advice on the subject. Delano referred the request to John Nolen, the NCP&PC planning director. Nolen recommended that the Park Service devote all development funds then available to the section below Seneca, undertaking only such work beyond that point as was necessary to protect canal property. He favored postponing any decision on development and use beyond Seneca until the restored waterway was in use long enough to determine the need for extending it to Point of Rocks and possibly further. Meanwhile, he suggested, the Public Roads Administration (formerly the Bureau of Public Roads) should be asked to review the studies begun in 1935 for a parkway along the Potomac, and the Army Corps of Engineers should be asked to consider the waterway and parkway development possibilities in connection with its current study of flood control and power development in the Potomac River Basin. Delano endorsed Nolen's recommendations. [33]

By this time William D. Byron, western Maryland's representative in Congress, was pressing for restoration of the canal between Dams 4 and 5 as a WPA (Work Projects Administration) project. Byron called on Ickes in October to complain about the delay in getting the project underway. Asked for a status report, Frank Gartside cited the railroad reservation problem: the government did not yet have sufficient title to restore the waterway to minimum specifications (bottom width of 14 feet, depth of six feet) throughout the proposed project area. He also doubted that "the development of this section for local use would warrant the cost of maintenance and restoration." [34]

Politics nevertheless dictated support for the project. Conrad L. Wirth, chief of the NPS Branch of Recreation, Land Planning, and State Cooperation, appeared before the NCP&PC in November and secured its endorsement. The Park Service would proceed, Byron was told, if he could obtain the sponsor's contribution required for WPA projects—in this case, $15,000 from the Washington County commissioners and the town of Williamsport. By August 1940 the sponsors had pledged only $5,000, however. The Interior Department sought a transfer of funds from the WPA so that the project could go forward entirely with federal money, but the WPA refused. The project went no further. [35]

This was just as well, for the Park Service had its hands full caring for the section of the canal just rewatered. In September and October serious leaks were discovered just below Widewater. The CCC lowered the water level, built dams above and below the leaks, and pumped out the remaining water between them. The rock underlying the canal bottom was found to be fractured, requiring removal of the sandy overlay and grouting to seal the cracks. This major task, also handled by the CCC, halted canoeing from that point down to Lock 5 for the rest of the season. [36]

America's entry into World War II at the end of 1941 forced severe cutbacks in Park Service operations. The C & O Canal, which was not officially a unit of the national park system or even the national capital parks system, was especially hard-hit. War mobilization brought an end to the CCC program, on which the Service had relied for canal maintenance. Troops occupied the vacated CCC barracks at Carderock and the Great Falls Tavern to guard the intake works of the Washington Aqueduct, which supplied the city's water.

Less than a year later, in October 1942, another major flood struck the Potomac Valley. Although less severe than that of 1936, it ravaged much of the 1939-40 canal restoration work. The large filled towpath embankment at the lower end of Widewater again washed out, and the Army took the opportunity to fence off the canal between there and Swains Lock (Lock 21, the next above Great Falls). There was a break at Lock 7, and damage to the feeder dam at Little Falls and other breaks below Lock 5 left Georgetown without canal water. The repair cost between Georgetown and Great Falls was estimated at $250,000. [37]

Under wartime conditions only the portion below the Little Falls dam could be repaired. The Corps of Engineers repaired the feeder area at Lock 5 so that water could reach an emergency pumping station it installed on the canal to supply the Dalecarlia Reservoir if the conduit from Great Falls were bombed or sabotaged. With a special appropriation obtained in March 1943, Corson & Gruman was awarded a $149,367 contract in June to repair the feeder dam and perform other work needed to restore water to the Georgetown mills by that fall. Work on the dam continued in 1944, when a concrete cap was installed over two hundred feet of its length to better hold its relaid stones in place. [38]

CCC repairs towpath
CCC repairs towpath break at Widewater, September 10, 1940.

CCC reconstructs towpath
CCC reconstructs towpath at Widewater, July 9, 1941.

At war's end in August 1945, the Park Service promptly began planning and negotiating with the Corps of Engineers to accommodate the public at Great Falls and to repair and rewater the canal from Widewater down to Lock 5. A major cleanup job was required to clear fallen trees and brush from the previously fenced area, normally one of the heaviest used stretches of the towpath. [39] Because the Widewater break could not then be repaired, a dike was placed across the canal below it, and arrangements were made to fill the canal from there down to Lock 5 with water from the Washington Aqueduct. This was done in 1946, but the volume of water that the Service was able to obtain from the Corps proved inadequate to maintain a proper level in the canal. Work on the Widewater break did not get underway until 1954 and was not completed until the fall of 1957.

Until 1946 the legality of funding such work was somewhat doubtful, inasmuch as the C & O Canal was not an official park system unit and lacked legislation authorizing appropriations for it. Working with the Bureau of the Budget, the Park Service prepared a bill to rectify this situation for the canal and miscellaneous other NPS holdings and activities outside established park boundaries. "The activities for which definite statutory recognition is here sought have, in the past, been authorized from year to year in acts appropriating moneys for the National Park Service," Secretary Ickes wrote in transmitting the bill to Congress. "However, some of these customary appropriation provisions may conceivably be vulnerable to a point of order, based upon the absence of any express mention of the particular activity concerned in the general language of the laws that they are designed to implement." The bill, enacted without difficulty on August 1, 1946, legitimized future appropriations for the "administration, protection, maintenance, and improvement of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal." [40]

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Last Updated: 11-Oct-2004