A canal trip from a bygone era


In 1915, Mrs. John P. Cowan and her husband voyaged in a boat they made in their Pittsburgh kitchen the length of the C&O Canal, from Cumberland to Washington. (Courtesy of the National Park Service, C&O Canal NHP)
John Kelly
Columnist May 4, 2013

One of history’s ironies is that in many places the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad put its tracks right alongside the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. It was the new looking down, quite literally, upon the old. And it was in a window seat in a B&O observation car that John Pryor Cowan had an idea.

Cowan was from Pittsburgh, where he wrote for the Gazette. On his occasional trips to Washington, he enjoyed gazing out the window at the canal. This was about 1915, when the canal was still a going concern, if already doomed by cheaper, faster and more convenient forms of shipping.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Still, Cowan mused, wouldn’t it be nice to travel on the canal?

Answer Man doesn’t know the name of Cowan’s wife — she is invariably referred to as Mrs. John P. Cowan — but we know that she was a Virginian and chaired the Pittsburgh branch of the Daughters of the Confederacy. We also know she didn’t mind giving up her kitchen, for it was there that the couple constructed the boat that would take them the full 184-mile length of the C&O Canal.

They ordered a kit from Brooks Manufacturing of Saginaw, Mich., then set about building it. Wrote Cowan: “Propped up on a stepladder the bony frame of the future boat looked like one of those uncanny paleontological specimens in the Carnegie museum, and drew from the visitors a flow of remarks entirely irrelevant to boatbuilding.”


Mr. and Mrs. John P. Cowan pose for a portrait with the Sometub, a kit-built boat they used to travel down the C&O Canal in 1915. (Courtesy of the National Park Service, C&O Canal NHP)

At a loss for words to describe the boat, most of their friends sputtered, “Well, that’s some tub!”

The name stuck.

On July 15, 1915, after shipping the Sometub by train from Pennsylvania and paying a $5.10 waybill fee to the deputy collector of the port in Cumberland, Md., the Cowans set off.

Cowan said the Sometub had the distinction of being the first boat with an outboard gasoline engine — a little Evinrude with a top speed of 5 mph — to ply the canal. On that first day, the motor worked fine, powering the Sometub down the “vine-fringed, ribbon-like pool that wound its way into sequestered solitudes among the towering hills. Here and there a farmhouse was visible in the distance on the uplands and occasionally a lonely cabin squatted among the willows and dank weeds that grew in the marshy places, but for the greater part of our run on this level we hugged close to the hillside or proceeded through courses of broad meadows.”

They stopped for the first night in North Branch, Md. After firing up a tiny stove — powered with “canned heat” (solid alcohol fuel) — and cooking a meal, the Cowans lowered the curtains on the Sometub, spread out a mattress in the hull and went to sleep.

They were awakened around midnight by a horrible shrieking. Startled, Cowan peeked out to see two white specters on the towpath, then heard a rough voice shout, “You black-hearted, ornery, low-lifed beggar — geddap!”

It was a mule-driver encouraging his two gray mules down the canal, a taut line and a long boat behind them.

Some of the canal-boat captains the Cowans encountered on their journey were rude, steering their boats in the path of the Sometub. But others proved to be good Samaritans. When the Evinrude conked out or had its propeller fouled by grass, as happened repeatedly, canal-boat skippers would throw them a line. Mules, ornery as they were, never conked out.

It rained for much of the journey, but when the sun was out there was something almost Eden-like about their surroundings.

Wild blackberries grew along the banks. Remembered Cowan: “For luncheon we skirted the cliffs and picked a dish of berries which with crackers and tea enabled us to have a unique and delicious repast without tying up the boat.”

They watched farmhands at work in fields. They watched housewives milking cows. They ate breakfast with lock tenders. They passed hamlet after hamlet: Oldtown, Little Orleans, Pearre, Hancock, Millstone, Ernestville, Williamsport . . .

Finally, 11 days after setting out, the Cowans spent their last night aboard the Sometub, tied up outside Glen Echo, where they were “lulled to slumber by the music in the dancing pavilion of the park.”

The next day they put-putted into Georgetown, which they found full of disreputable characters, as any port should be. They were afraid to leave the Sometub behind as they did some sightseeing in the District, and sad when they packed up the boat for its return journey by train.

“We regretted that more vacation tourists could not share the pleasure of our trip over the mountains — by water,” Cowan wrote in an account of the trip published in 1916. “We did not stop to consider that the majority of summer travelers desire speed, luxury and the least discomfort and would balk at the petty annoyances we endured. . . .

Your job: Send in questions about the D.C. area to answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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