By ANDREW SCHOTZ
The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown
WILLIAMSPORT, Md. (AP) — A broken link in America’s longest national park is nearly fixed.
Two National Park Service officials said recently that repairs to the Big Slackwater section of the C&O Canal National Historical Park will be completed soon and the park might reopen next month.
For years, about 2.7 miles of the park at Big Slackwater has been closed and considered impassable, especially by bicycle.
Hikers and bikers have been forced to take a hazardous 4.5-mile detour along Dam 4, Dellinger and Avis Mill roads, which have no shoulders. Two years ago, the National Park Service determined that there were 35 accidents along the detour in a five-year period in which someone was taken to the hospital.
The Big Slackwater stretch of the park now has eight wide bridges, or elevated walkways, along a 1.5-mile stretch, anchored by 121 columns bolted into the rock, said Dan Copenhaver, the park’s chief of preservation and project management.
The towpath trail leading up to the bridges, on either side, has been “reclaimed” — a narrow lane was built up into a wide, level path.
In August 2010, park leaders and elected officials gathered to celebrate the start of the repair project, which was expected to take about 18 months and cost about $17.2 million.
Both estimates were low. The project is nearing an end after about 24 months. Copenhaver said the final cost probably will be a little more than $19 million.
The bulk of the funding — $12.8 million — came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus package.
The state of Maryland provided $4.4 million through its Transportation Enhancement Program.
The C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal Association also contributed, said Brian Carlstrom, the park’s deputy superintendent.
“Without those partnerships, without that community advocacy, this simply would have never happened,” he said.
Additional federal money covered the remaining $2 million.
The Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield, Maine, is the contractor.
Copenhaver said Gruber Latimer Restoration of Williamsport has been doing the masonry work.
Flooding from Hurricane Agnes demolished the towpath above Dam 4, the National Park Service has said.
The park service repaired and reopened portions of the towpath at Big Slackwater in 1995, but flooding the next year made it worse, so it was shut down again, the park service has said.
In 2006, the C&O Canal Association, a nonprofit group, made a strong push for the park to be fixed, inviting public officials on a tour.
Support for the project gained momentum the next year in Annapolis, when the Washington County delegation secured money to help pay for engineering work.
The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau has been a public supporter, saying repairs to the park at Big Slackwater could help the county’s economy and create jobs.
Bicyclists, in particular, have anticipated the repair.
The C&O Canal National Historical Park runs 184.5 miles between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Md.
The 132-mile Great Allegheny Passage trail connects Cumberland to the Pittsburgh area.
A rideable path at Big Slackwater will allow riders to stay on those trails the entire way.
In 2007, Thomas B. Riford, the CVB’s president and chief executive officer, said a group of 500 bicyclists planned to bypass Washington County on a trip from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh because of the gap at Big Slackwater.
The C&O Canal Trust has been posting updates on the work and photos at http://www.canaltrust.org (under “park projects”).
The contractor still is working, so the public isn’t allowed on the new Big Slackwater stretch yet. Carlstrom and Copenhaver showed a reporter the nearly finished work recently by boat.
Copenhaver said the park service hopes to reopen the area around mid-September.
A grand reopening celebration is scheduled for mid-October, Carlstrom said.
Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., http://www.herald-mail.com
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)