Sunday, April 24, 2011

C&O Remembered

For the past few decades, my friend Paul and I have hiked along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal almost every week, except when it rains, snows, or is uncomfortably wet. Or when the lure of coffee and bagels is simply too overwhelming. We are fair-weather walkers and occasional rock climbers, Paul and I, who revel in the local flora and fauna. It’s rare if during our walks we do not encounter a snake or two, turtles by the dozens, aloof great blue herons, the occasional bald eagle, hawks, owls, deer that disappear into the hues and shades of the landscape. We’ve met snapping turtles as large as my chest ambling on the path with us, and young beavers swimming at our pace.  There are strange bugs too, multicolored caterpillars and confused moths. One time we fished such a creature from the waters where it had fallen. It was a wondrously large insect with velvet wings big as the palms of my hands. I don’t know if it survived our ministrations but I remember that the rescue made me feel good for the rest of the afternoon.  On weekdays, there are very few people, and they, like us, walk along the canal with a degree of reverence and wonder. It’s hard to imagine we are mere miles from the center of the Western world, from the White House and Pentagon and the roaring Beltway traffic.

According to the National Park Service, the C&O is almost 185 uninterrupted miles long. The C&O Company was chartered in 1825 to construct a shipping canal connecting tidewater on the Potomac River in Washington, DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, thereby providing an economical trade route between the eastern seaboard and the trans-Allegheny West. During the canal’s peak years following the Civil War, some 850,000 tons of coal were towed in 500 barges that plied the waters daily. Following major flood in 1889, the C&O Company went into receivership and was bought out by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. In 1938, the railroad in turn sold it to government, which placed it under the National Park Service.  

Very little has changed along the canal in more than a century. The path used by mules to tow the barges is exactly as it was in the 1800s. There are locks, now unused, and a series of mostly vacant lockhouses. The vegetation and wildlife remain the same, as do the granite tailings from rock quarries that lined the Potomac River. The walls of the locks are made of large stone blocks painfully hoisted into place, and these have been inscribed with the marks of the stonemasons who worked them, American hieroglyphics, mystifying and untranslated.

I like going there because, within my own reference of years gone by, time has indeed stood still and I am taken back to the days of my twenties and thirties with bicycles and canoes, fishing rods and picnic baskets. I spent long summer afternoons there with friends now gone for good, Michael and Christine and Bart and Maddie and others who still have large real estate holdings in my mind. I went there with my father a time or three and he too was enchanted. The place reminded him of the English countryside where he summered as a child. My mother once organized a nature walk for the ancient ladies of the Franco American Friendship Society.  They all wore hats and dark dresses and trod along the path like elderly members of an arcane but gentle cult who had somehow gone astray.

The National Park Service’s budget has suffered in recent years and there are places where the canal no longer flows. Cave-ins, storms, erosion of the banks and floods have all taken their tolls and there are not enough funds to fix everything. Still, the canal and path endure. That’s reassuring in times of constant and confusing change. I might go there this afternoon.

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