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June 03, 2023

Park Service Finishes Reconstruction of C&O Canal Towpath, Restoring Safety and History

Credit: The Herald-Mail

The $20 million reconstruction of the canal towpath near McMahon’s Mill in Williamsport is finished. Sen. Ben Cardin and Maryland Rep. David Trone attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, both emphasizing the importance that the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park has for the state.

The project reconstructed and stabilized nearly one mile of the historic stone wall and towpath along the canal. The towpath, once used for mules pulling ships along the river, is now used by many bikers and hikers.

An estimated 5 million people come to the national park each year, with 150,000 visitors coming to the reconstructed area alone.

The towpath restoration started in August of 2021 to reduce flooding of the area. The path would flood around a dozen times every year before the restoration project, according to Joe Reed, leader of the engineering services team. The towpath also saw sinkholes, erosion and missing parts of the wall.

“This area is a really significant resource for everyone living around here,” Reed said. “It was a big deal to us to try to mitigate all safety concerns for the visitors and preserve the natural and cultural resources for the current and future generations.”

To lessen flooding problems, crews raised the towpath and stabilized it by using historic masonry techniques.

Crews had to work on the water for much of the project by standing on floating barges. Reed said this made for some logistical problems when weather patterns impacted the water level and intensity of the river. In May 2022 a construction barge for the project broke away into the Potomac River.

While the work was to prevent flooding of the towpath, the team also had to preserve the path’s historic structure, using existing stones whenever possible.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Director of the Maryland Historical Trust Elizabeth Hughes presented the team with the 2023 Maryland Preservation Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation and Sustainable Design.

“This project is a model in the way it balances the need for sustainability while at the same time preserving historic fabric that is critical to the visitor experience of this historic transportation resource,” Hughes said.

The corridor has endangered and threatened species that the crews aimed to protect, including moving almost 100 freshwater mussels away from the construction site.

Senator Ben Cardin speaks to National Park Service employees at the ribbon-cutting of the restored towpath.
Cardin said he loves the canal and uses it often, walking in a few mile chunks along the towpath. Team Maryland will continue to do whatever they can to support the canal, the senator said.

“This is an incredibly important moment to see this part of the canal preserved historically correct and safe for people to use. … It’s a big moment,” Cardin said.

The senator touted his own work and the efforts of Trone and Sen. Chris Van Hollen to gather federal funds for projects along the canal.

Trone, who is running for Cardin’s senate seat in 2024, said he sees the canal as a crucial aspect of the economy. The representative said the canal, which stretches from Georgetown to Cumberland, supports 1,300 jobs.

“This investment is about our children and their children, but it’s also driving our economy,” Trone said.