Boats travel easily along the flat water sections of the C&O Canal but elsewhere they faced a challenge: the 605 foot elevation change over the length of the canal. So a series of 74 lift locks had to be built to carry the boat up and down the steeper terrain.
A lift lock works like a water elevator, raising or lowering the boat. A series of locks along the canal are placed like stair steps, up and down the landscape.
This boat is headed downstream. The water level in the lock must be the same as the level the boat has been traveling on. Once the boat is inside the lock it is tied off to snubbing posts, to keep it from ramming and damaging the gates or the boat itself, then the gates behind it are closed.
A large balance beam is used to close the lock then a lock key opens the butterfly or wicket valves in the downstream gates allowing the water to slowly drain out of the lock. As the water drains, the boat is gradually lowered to the next level. By the time the water levels are equalized the boat has dropped about eight to ten feet.
Then the large wooden gates of the downstream side can be opened. It has taken ten to fifteen minutes to complete the process, since operation is easier with two people. Having stepped down to a new water level the boat will be hitched again to the mules and the cargo and crew are on their way.
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Watch a canal boat use a lift lock in this short, captioned video. Animations help illustrate how these simple engineering structures conquered the terrain of Western Maryland.
[harmonica music playing] [Narrator]: Life on the canal conjures images of lazy summer afternoons and shear relaxation but there is more to this story then meets the eye. From 1828 to 1850, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was painstakingly carved out of the Maryland shore of the Potomac. This route westward held the promise of untapped resources and economic prosperity. It also permitted families to earn their livelihoods by transporting cargo on their boats up and down the canal. During the C&O Canal’s heyday, over 500 boats navigated the 184 mile water highway night and day for commercial trade. While the pace was slow and steady at four miles per hour, 18 hour days were not uncommon. Even young children pitched in and were taught to steer the 90 to 95 foot long canal boats. Canal children also tended one of the boat crews hardest working members, the mules.
Teams of two or more mules pulled the cargo boats over all types of terrain, including the mountainous region of western Maryland. [“Lock Ready!”] 74 locks lifted the boats over 600 feet up into this hilly terrain. The mule teams also crossed splendid stone cut aqueducts that carried the boats over the Potomac’s tributaries. Moving cargo along the canal depended on the good care given to the mules. The trains, on the other hand, didn’t have to depend on animal power to move their loads. The mighty steam engines on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad powered a long and an intense rivalry between the canawlers and the railroadmen. Train engineers blew their whistles at the boatmen as they sped past, scaring the plotting mules on the towpath and angering the canawlers.
Once the drivers calmed the mules down, they would resume their six hour shift or trick before the next team relieved them.
One of the primary reasons mules were used was due to the fact that the nonworking mules could actually be housed onboard the boat when off duty, larger animals like oxen were too massive to fit onboard. Today’s mule teams, trained and groomed by National Park Service personnel, work the same as those in the 1800’s, although they don’t pull the boats nearly as far.
[Park Ranger]: “We clean a tack the same reason we clean the mules, so no dirt and grit rubs against them, causes sores.” [Narrator]: Properly harnessing the mules before beginning a trick is imperative. Equipment that is too
tight, too loose or improperly worn can cause sores or injury and make it harder for the mules to work. Mules are
harnessed in teams of two and in tandem, not side by side. This enables the mules to pull the boats efficiently and with more force.
During training, one experienced mule is placed in front and another behind a new mule, or a greenie as she is called. This allows the rookie to by lead and trained by more seasoned animals and any greenies that sit down on the job are prodded to get up and walk by the team.
Mules are hardy strong animals that are produced by crossing a female horse, or mare, with a male donkey, also called a jack. Mules inherit their mother’s large well shaped bodies and strong muscles, giving them a horse’s ease in getting used to harnesses. Their endurance and short footedness comes from the jack, they are also less likely
to suffer from being overworked then a horse might be. Since canal mules are working animals they get new shoes on all four hooves once a month. Their shoes are more oval in shape then a horse’s giving them a firmer grasp of the terrain.
At the height of canal commerce, the quick learning, steady, and dependable mule was a valuable commodity. Without their trusty mule teams, canawlers would have found it impossible to earn their livelihoods on the C&O Canal’s waterways. In fact, for canawlers in the 1800’s a boat without a good mule team, would have been as useless as a steam train without its engine. [harmonica music playing]
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Mules are amazing hybrids! Watch this captioned video to learn about what made mules the ideal choice for canal boat operations, and see how National Park Service rangers train and care for the mules today.
Last updated: May 6, 2018