Sixty years have passed since the last boats plied the placid waters of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal from Cumberland to Georgetown. Most of the captains are dead. Their children, who walked the towpath driving mules, are dead or seem older than the Alleghenies whose "ebony harvest" of coal the canal was built to exploit. And the canal itself, overgrown with trees, rife with bird-watching PhDs, fitness nuts and other varieties of contemporary fauna, no longer is a piece of "transportation infrastructure," as planners would say, but a part of history.
The ditch remains, but the canal, except for a few watered stretches, is a memory mostly, preserved in pictures, tales, National Park Service plaques and books such as Elizabeth Kytle's "Home on the Canal." Published by Seven Locks Press, a local company that specializes in public-policy books but takes its name from the series of C&O locks that stepped past Great Falls, "Home on the Canal" is a gliding packet boat of a book that tours the history of the canal's 96 working years, and recounts the stories of 11 men and women who worked and lived on the C&O.
With 54 sepia-toned photographs of canal scenes and characters, Kytle's "informal history" makes a worthy introduction to the making of the C&O. But the heart of "Home on the Canal" is the recollections of the lock tenders and mule drivers--two of whom have since died.
Their time was the final years of the canal before it closed in 1924. Money was short; bean soup was the mainstay. Lock tenders had gardens and hogs. Boatmen spooned up an egg and flour dish called "rivvels," and Evelyn Liston's charges were fond of Slippery Pot Pie. (Kytle includes the recipe.) Beer was had for 5 cents a quart in a 10-quart bucket known as a "growler." After a long day, the drivers would rub "Yeager's Liniment" on the legs of the mules. Boats sometimes ran after dark. One boatman passed the lonely miles playing his mother's favorite hymn "How Great Thou Art" on a harmonica.
Life was sweetened with penny candy; boatmen recall how pretty were the canal's trimmed trees and mowed grass banks, how moonlight gleamed on the brimful locks and whitewashed houses.
But the boating life struck some as tedious and mean. The muledrivers got "cow itch" between their toes, which they treated with corn starch and iodine. Men drank, brawled and sometimes stumbled into the water and drowned. Lester M. Mose Sr. of Sharpsburg, Md., best expresses the ambivalence some old timers felt about their lot. Several times in the course of his interview Mose says: "I never liked the canal, but I took a lot of interest in it."
A waterway to the West was the great national undertaking of the early 19th century. The project required 14 years and $22 million, a sum, Kytle points out, that was equal to the percentage of the gross national project that the nation spent reaching the moon. Perhaps the canal's romance lies in the fact that, in a sense, it never was new. It was an anachronism from the start, built with locks that Leonardo da Vinci had dreamed up, and doomed by the B&O railroad that broke ground the same day in 1828.
If the railroad wasn't enough, the canal builders battled hardships ranging from droughts, cholera outbreaks, bankruptcy and labor riots to the muskrats and crabs that picked holes in the embankment and let the water out.
"Home on the Canal" is full of curious facts. It explains, for instance, that some buildings in Georgetown owe their English basements to the fact that streets had to be "raised" after several bridges over the canal were raised to accommodate larger boats. Kytle notes the foolish combination of Roman and elliptical arches that undermined the Catoctin Aqueduct. There are scenes that make one wish TV cameras could have covered the flood of 1924. One: floodwater forcing lock tender Harvey Brant to ferry his piano from the lock house parlor to high ground.
Those at home on the canal today are Boy Scouts and joggers and weekending cityfolk desperate for a bit of green and a taste of another life. Canaling was a hard life, Kytle repeatedly observes, and most probably not a life a city slicker would have wanted. But we are an inherently nostalgic tribe, and the canal has come to represent a way of life that seems appealing in its pace and pastoral splendor. Theodore Lizer, when he was 12, steered his father's boat Little Slack Water, ate snapping turtles and shivered when he heard the screech owls at night. Now he bears witness: "They have these big times now at Lock 44 in Williamsport Md. ," he recalls in the book. "I went year before last. People from Washington were down there, asking a lot of questions, trying to learn. I said, 'It would be worth a million dollars to you people to stand right here . . . and watch a loaded boat coming down with three mules pulling it and this lock getting ready for it.' "
For a fraction of the cost, "Home on the Canal" gives a peek at that million-dollar view