WILLIAMSPORT, Md. (AP) — It appears some of the old ways of life on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal gradually will be coming back to Williamsport now that the National Park Service has announced plans to move forward with at least three projects on the canal that will re-create features of the former commercial waterway and enhance visitor experiences.
The work will include raising the railroad lift bridge near Cushwa Basin, according to Kevin Brandt, superintendent of Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
During the heyday of the canal, the bridge could be moved up and down to allow canal boats to pass below. It was lowered when the canal was shut down in 1924, and Brandt said the structure probably has not been lifted since.
Raising the lift bridge will allow boats to pass beneath the steel structure and lengthen ongoing boat rides on the canal in Williamsport by about one-third of a mile, Brandt said.
It will take a lot of work to lift the heavy steel structure, possibly requiring a couple of cranes, Brandt said.
“It’s not like you can just crank it up,” Brandt said. “The cables have probably not been used since 1924.”
The projects were announced by Brandt and Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, during a recent Williamsport Town Council meeting.
Funding for the projects is coming from various federal, state and private sources, and National Park Service officials are ready to start bidding out the work, Brandt said.
Brandt said in a telephone interview that experts working on the projects still are trying to determine how the work will be phased in, and he expects the longer boat rides made possible by the raising of the lift bridge to be offered no later than the spring of 2015.
Besides offering a longer ride, raising the lift bridge will allow boat riders, for the first time since the canal closed, to be able to go through an operating canal lock — Lock 44 — just south of Williamsport.
Williamsport and other towns along the C&O Canal have been looking at ways to better capitalize on tourism associated with the canal. Williamsport began offering boat rides on the canal last year and has worked on the exterior of Lockhouse 44.
Attention now will turn to the inside of Lockhouse 44, including putting up sheet rock to resemble the home as it looked during the operation of the canal, Brandt said.
Brandt talked about the possibility of putting period-style furniture in the house, and said someone locally might have some furniture that could be donated or loaned to the park service for the house.
The planned work includes building a “cutoff wall” at Lock 44, which will prevent water from leaking in the area of the lock, Brandt said. Water currently leaks from the canal at Lock 44, and the wall will be created by driving sections of steel into the ground, Brandt said.
The boats will be able to pass through Lock 44, proceed to a still section of water known as Level 43 and turn around for a trip back to Cushwa Basin, Brandt said.
There also are plans to increase the volume of water in the canal, something that is needed to adequately operate Lock 44, Brandt said.
Currently, water in Cushwa Basin — a body of water in front of an old canal warehouse that allowed canal boats to turn around — comes from surface runoff, Brandt said. But more water is needed for the basin and the canal to operate Lock 44, and the planned work includes installing water pumps in nearby Conococheague Creek to pump more water into the canal, Brandt said.
Once the pumps are completed and the cutoff wall is constructed, the lock will be able to accept boats, Brandt said.
Last year was the first full year of offering rides on “launch boats” on the canal in Williamsport, and Brandt said he expects the rides to be offered again this year.
Brandt said the rides probably will be offered to the public on the weekends and to school groups during the week. The rides for students will coincide with fourth-grade classroom curriculum in Washington County Public Schools about the history of the canal, Brandt said.
The C&O Canal, which extended 184.5 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, paralleled the Potomac River and used the water from the river. It operated for 96 years, and 78 miles of the canal ran through Washington County.
Williamsport was considered one of the most important points along the canal, and local officials often remark about the variety of features on the Williamsport section of the canal.
“No other place in North America has all these structures in one place,” Riford said in a news release. “I look forward to the day, also, when the aqueduct is repaired, and boats can also travel that re-watered section.”
The Conococheague Aqueduct is a limestone structure that carried the C&O Canal over the mouth of Conococheague Creek at Williamsport.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)