Preservation Magazine, Fall 2022

The C&O Canal's New Old Boat

An 18th century-style boat takes visitors on a tour of the initial stretch of the C&O Canal.

photo by: Chris Chern

While it requires some imagination to visualize today, the bucolic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal once teemed with commerce. For decades, mule-drawn, flat-bottom boats plied its 185-mile length between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland, moving manufactured goods, coal, lumber, and produce. Only in 1971, nearly 50 years after commercial operations ceased, did the canal begin its second act as the centerpiece of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, a preserved, functioning example of 19th-century transportation infrastructure.

To bring that infrastructure to life for park visitors, Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit partner organization of the National Park Service, commissioned construction of a boat in the style of a 19th-century canal vessel. (An earlier replica was retired in 2011.) Launched in April of 2022 and propelled by electric motors instead of mules, it hosts tours of the canal’s first mile, in Washington’s Georgetown Historic District.

Georgetown Heritage’s director of education and partnerships, S. Rex Carnegie, says the tours highlight the canal’s still-impressive technology—including its manually operated lift locks—while animating its history with primary-source accounts of real people, such as James Curry, whose harrowing 1837 escape from slavery took him along the C&O towpath. “Preservation is not just [about] material culture,” Carnegie says, but also “the flesh-and-blood humanity that’s connected to these places.”

(Editor's note: Georgetown Heritage's boat tours went on hiatus at the end of October 2022 as the NPS launched a larger restoration plan that will require draining the canal.)

Bruce D. Snider is an architect, writer, and editor based in Belfast, Maine.

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