The Washington Post

A short walk back in time along the C&O Canal in Georgetown

Having spent my weekend on the other side of the country covering the terrible mudslide in Washington state, I had gained a couple of days off in part payment. I burned one of them sleeping off my red-eye flight, but Wednesday bloomed bright, sunny, warm and full of promise. So after dropping the kids at school, I jumped the Red Line out of Shady Grove to discover a little more of my new hometown. Always time for a little commuter sketching on the way.

So D.C. has a canal — so Gene who sits beside me in the office says — you can’t put a price on good research. Gene says the canal once came all the way into the center of the district. And why would he lie about something like that? I set off to find it.

So exiting at my usual Farragut North stop, I hoof it westwards in the vague direction of Georgetown and this “canal.” The fact that the District has no tall buildings really makes navigating challenging for those of us who were born and bred in hilly terrain. Even with using my cellphone’s natty compass and Google’s privacy-invading self-locating map, it still takes me a good half hour.

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is one of the most intact and impressive survivals of the American canal-building era. Or so you will read on almost every C&O website out there. But it looks neither intact nor impressive when I stumble upon its end, about halfway down a Rock Creek Parkway off-ramp. In fact it resembles much more its “Grand Old Ditch” title, filled as it is with wooden pallets, shoes, baseball hats, plastic bottles and little in the way of water. And what is that – a pair of pants?

The C&O Canal ground was ceremoniously broken a little under two hundred years ago by President John Quincy Adams, on a planned 300-mile canal route linking Washington to Pittsburgh. Apparently – so wiki tells it – the sixth President had to take his jacket off for a few serious swipes with the shovel before finally breaking through. If only someone had spotted this visual metaphor as the sign of tough times ahead, it obviously was. Just over twenty years later, with the canal completed only as far as Cumberland in Maryland — about half of the originally planned distance —  they were out of money and in serious competition with the railroad industry. Cumberland was as far as the C&O would get.

Aside from being devoid of water, it certainly had great art potential. I walked westward, truly spoilt for choice for good options on where to sketch. The mixture of tall locks, rotting timbers, stagnant puddles and abandoned objects was an Urban Sketchers playground. I eventually settled on the edge of one empty lock looking westward near a pseudo-dry docked canal barge. Perfect.

Tourists wandered by as I drew. What is the collective noun for groups of tourists arrived too early for most touristy things to be open yet – an “embarrassment”? Lets go with that. One local lady stopped by and asked if I worked for the parks department. She wanted to know if they planned to put the water back in the canal soon? I could tell the tourists were wondering the same thing. A sign to my right read “QUEUE HERE FOR BOAT RIDES” — above a twenty-foot drop into mud.

For the next couple of hours, I wrestled with this scene. There were just so many places to go wrong and the obvious perspective somehow made it harder rather than easier. I had measured somewhat tightly, so I literally just managed to squeeze this onto the sketchpad. But squeeze it on I did. One of these days I should really try some color. But who has the time?

Right at the end I had to push up the umbrella, as it had started to rain a little. I got a bit of a fright when a young man poked his head around and confided, “that **** is tight.” Ego-nurturing constructive criticism if ever I heard it. I’ll take it where I can.

It would have been easy to call it a day right then, but I don’t get that much time off so I decided to try to wait out the weather. So umbrella in hand, I humped myself and my sketchpad and chair along the canal path — trying to visualize how beautiful it will all be when it was once more awash in Tommy Hilfiger yuppies and maybe a couple of feet of water. But with the soggy smell and last year’s fish carcasses staring at me, I couldn’t do it.

My next stop was the abutment of the Alexandria Aqueduct. That is right. At one point in D.C., they were so hot for canals that they built a massive bridge across the Potomac, filled it with canal water, and floated their barges over. Like flying boats. I love the industrial revolution — they truly believed there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with cast iron caissons and cheap immigrant labor.

In the early 1830s, eight piers were set into the bedrock across the Potomac to support the aqueduct superstructure. When completed in the 1840s, it connected the C&O canal in Georgetown, with the Rosslyn to Alexandria canal, allowing coal and minerals to be carried directly to waiting seagoing merchant vessels without unloading and reloading. The first bridge carried the canal water for twenty years until the Civil War, when it was drained and used as a roadway to get troops across the river. A second steel bridge, completed in 1889, built on the same eight piers, carried a road and a tramway before it too was eventually closed in the 1920s after the construction of the Key Bridge. The bridge and all of the piers, save one, were eventually torn down to twenty feet below the water line in 1933. That single pier and the Georgetown abutment is all that remains.

But even this surviving piece of local history appears to be losing a war with graffiti artists and ivy — still somehow beautiful though. For this sketch I am sitting on my fold-out chair in a canal of grass and broken glass, looking out through the cross section of the old aqueduct support. My seat would have been under water in the original aqueduct. Somewhat neatly framed by this in the sketch is the Key Bridge.

A couple of girls are smoking a joint on the wall to my left. In fact, over the next hour a number of tourists — mostly teens — come and take in the view. And smoke one. I am in some danger of picking up a latent high. Seems like a nice day for it.

That is it for the wandering round, drawing D.C., and talking about myself part of this week’s blog. On now to my entrant, in the local Urban Sketcher category, and this week’s highlight. According to her Web site, Leila Cabib is a cartoonist, illustrator and animator whose work has been commissioned for newspapers, magazines, books, television and an environmental museum. She is also an Urban Sketcher with a rare eye for the iconic and beautiful among the everyday. Check this out below.

You can see more of her work on her website at And contact her at if you want to speak to her in person.

That is it for this week. Get outdoors and start drawing. As my grandfather used to say, “I can never tell which sketch will be my last, so I have to squeeze in as many as possible between now and then.” Hope to see you out there.

Got a question? Ask me.
Want to see more of my work?

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.



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Richard Johnson · March 31, 2014

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