Sunday, August 9, 2015

Floating 19th Century Style on the C&O Canal

I've had a fascination with canals ever since I discovered that they are more than the distant Panama Canal and a lone paragraph about the 19th century in a history textbook. (I'm from Texas so who knew?) On my first visit to  upstate New York (Schenectady) I saw many a sign to various canal locks, which I simply had to tour. Thus began my detours to all historic canals and tow paths!

Packet boat rides (some more historic than others) walking tow paths...all exude a romantic charm of the past to me.  I have so far logged visits of various sorts to canals in New York, (This is one trip of many I've made in New York. More photos to come of the various incredible trips I've taken in my pre-blogging days.) Virginia and West Virginia. I've seen and experienced first hand the operation of many a modern lock, but thus far have only seen historic 19th century locks fading away to the dusty pages of yore. 

One day last August I got my dream come true to actually ride in a historic 19th century boat in the historic 19th century manner. Bonus fun included park service rangers clothed in historic 19th century clothing...who fully knew their historic information so that they could fully immerse us into the historic 19th century experience! They gave us the entire 19th century package...including games and music on the packet ride. Oh yes, and there were mules! Got to have  mules!

This visit was to the C&O Canal which extends 184.5 miles along the Maryland side of the Potomac River. In the 18th century George Washington envisioned a need for a canal that ran from the Ohio to the Potomac. Although rivers were extensively used in 18th century Virginia, the Great Falls on the Potomac made river transport much beyond the the Potomac into the mountains impossible.  Washington's dream became reality after his death in the 19th century.

The C&O stands for Chesepeake and Ohio. The goal was for the canal to run from the Pittsburgh and Ohio Rivers to the Potomac to the Chesepeake. In 1828 President John Quncy Adams had the honor to break ground. However the canal was only built as far as Georgetown (in today's Washington DC area.) Of course the canal has since phased out of its intended purpose after many years of successful use in the 19th century. 

Today the 184.5 miles long canal is mostly towpath for the enjoyment of all to jog, hike, and bike. (Here's a bicycle guide and map including an iphone app.) On this day, we visited one small section of it run by the National Park Service which offers a glimpse into the canal's use in the 19th century.

We arrived in time to see the packet boat go through the lock at the beginning of its journey (tour ride).



My son got to help push the bridge over. I completely missed how that worked because I was busy taking these photos.

Finally the waters rose in the lock which equalized the pressure so that the gates automatically, yet slowly opened. We glided right through with thanks to the mules pulling us. By the way to the left beyond the trees is the mighty Great Falls which rendered the need for this canal.


At last, it was our turn to board the packet boat for a ride. Here we are approaching the lock...


Can you tell that we have risen about halfway?
Now we are gliding out.
The mules are turning around...
...Can you tell by the angle of the railing that we are turning around to return to the lock?


Now that we are turned around, our guide has changed over from his history talk to a cultural talk of what the canal operators did while floating between locks. He's sharing lots of 19th century games with the children...
We are back to the lock. We need to enter then drop down a level to float out the other side to dock and disembark...

Can you tell we are down enough that the water pressure has equalized with that on the other side, slowly opening the gates? 
The boat operators also played music.

Our tour guide was a busy man. He hopped out after the concert to pull the boat into place to dock.



There is a small fee to ride the boat and experience this canal. Worth every penny and I don't say that often! Also this is a short ride (about 30 minutes) from Washington DC. The area is gorgeous! I highly recommend this trip!

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