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C&O Canal rides

Ride on the C&O Canal in a mule-drawn boat

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Get a taste of life in the 1870s with a mule-drawn boat ride on the C&O Canal. At less than five miles an hour, you'll learn the importance of the canal and what is was like in its heyday. But hold on to your bonnets - this trip takes only an hour, but it will transport you all the way back to the 19th century.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

In the 1870s, District residents would pay 50 cents for a six-hour boat ride from Georgetown to Great Falls in Potomac. They would picnic and see the falls, enjoy a respite from the city's muggy heat, then head back on the mule-drawn canal boat. Although you can't take quite the same journey these days -- and who would want to spend 12 hours sitting on a wooden bench? -- you can get a taste of 19th-century life with an hour-long ride on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The Charles F. Mercer is a replica of the vessels used to transport tourists in those days, right down to its crew. The canvas-topped boat departs from the Great Falls Visitor Center three times a day, four days a week, to take its passengers on a slow journey along a half-mile stretch of the canal and back. The center houses a museum with displays on canal life and is a short walk from the falls, offering plenty to do before and after the boat ride.

Aly Baltrus, supervising park ranger of both the Great Falls and Georgetown canal sites, says the ride is a chance to slow down and see a different lifestyle. "Everybody should experience life at the speed of a mule," she said. "Get rid of all the 2010 technology and go back in time."

It's easy to think you've traveled back in time, too, when surrounded by park staff and volunteers dressed in clothing that was common 150 years ago. Mules pull the canal boat much of the way, but visitors get to travel through one of the canal's hand-operated locks as a guide explains how the system works to lift or lower the boat to different water levels. You'll also learn the details of life in the 1870s and the effect the canal had on the city.

"The coal we brought down on this canal was very important in many of the industries in Washington, D.C.," National Park Service staff member Kelly Fox said. "Even though the railroads quickly surpassed us in technology, we still continued for 96 years bringing coal down to D.C."

The boat's younger riders were excited about the two mules pulling the boat. Both 10-year-old Faye Greenberg and her 7-year-old brother, Aaron, certainly felt that way.

"I like how the mules pull the boat and how we got to see everything and there was a cool breeze," Faye said. "I learned some stuff . . . [like] horses are not as smart as mules."

Their grandmother, Rosalind Greenberg, preferred the history and stories told by a fully costumed tour guide, while their mother, Leslie Greenberg, liked the boat ride best.

"I love going into the locks," she said. "I think it's really cool how they're able to let the water in, let the water out, and the boat goes up and down -- I think that's exciting."

The short canal ride will take you years back through history. Even though you don't travel far, you'll be amazed by how much you can see when moving at the pace of a mule.

-- Kristen Boghosian

WHERE IS IT? The trip departs from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. (Through spring, allow 15 minutes of extra travel time to get to the falls because of road construction.)

WHEN IS IT? You can catch a boat at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through October.

HOW MUCH IS IT? $5, age 3 and younger free.

FOR MORE INFORMATION Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 301-767-3714, or http://www.nps.gov/choh. Similar rides depart from 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, 202-653-5190.


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