A bargeful of nostalgia floated down the C&O Canal last week as nearly a dozen senior citizens turned the scenic waterway into a soggy memory lane.
In their youth they were known as "canal rats," the children of the boatmen and locktenders who lived an worked on the C&O. Some grew up to become boatmen or to marry boatmen before floods helped put the 184-mile waterway out of commission in 1924.
So the memories flowed thick and fast, and the barge floated smoothly and slowly as the ex-canal dwellers took their first C&O boatride in more than half a century.
Accompanied by about 30 other senior citizens, the former canal rats came by bus from their homes in Hancock, Md., to Georgetown. They boarded the National Park Service "Canal Clipper," an 85-foot ferro-cement replica of the 19th Century barges that regularly took cargo from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown, for an hour and a half of story swapping and reminiscing.
"Yes sir, this canal is my blood," nodded 77-year-old William (Brownie) Knode, a third-generation C&O boatman who said the biggest change has been the scenery.
"It used to smell a lot better, the towpath used to be wider and the Model Ts that drove by had three cylinders that went putt-putt-putt," he recalled, wincing as a jet flew overhead with a deafening roar. "There weren't any joggers or bicycles on the towpath just tramps and hobos.
"I am enjoying this - I only wish they still had the candy kitchen on M Street in Georgetown. That used to be the most fun I ever had. I used to get a penny for every mile I drove and a nickle for putting the boat in the lock without hitting a bumper. Then I'd spend it in Georgetown on lemon splits and sundaes."
Louella, Leola and Lloyd Shives, were all born in a canal lockhouse, and as youngsters were responsible for tending the locks that enabled the boats to travel the waterway.
"I was born up at lock 53, Sarah Johns Run, above Hancock four or five miles," said Louella Shives, who started tending locks when she was 10. "My daddy was first a boatman, then a locktender, then a level walker (repairman), then a foreman. He had them boats so down pat he could tell you practically to the minute when they'd be coming through.
"The boat would blow a horn that sounded like a mild fog horn, and I'd come out of our little four-room stone house. I'd put my back against the beams and push to open the gate."
"Pushing was twice as hard if there had been a good soaking rain," added her sister, 69-year-old Leola Shives Ott. "We'd use the canal for everything - swimming and fishing in the summer and skating in the winter."
The Shives sisters used to wake up at 4 a.m. to bake fresh sourdough bread and rolls to sell to the boatmen as they went through the locks. When company stayed in the lockhouse they slept on the floor, and thought it was "great fun."
"This brings back olden memories of what a wonderful life we had on the canal," said their brother, Lloyd Shives, 71. "People who lived on the canal had everything - livestock, a farm and wild game in the winter. During the first World War we had enough food so we didn't have to worry about rationing. From November to March it was like a vacation, because the canal was closed.
"But we lost the house and everything in the flood, and it broke up and scattered the family," shrugged Shives, who went to work for A&P after the flood. "I got to lock the last two boats going to Cumberland through lock 51, though, right before the 1924 flood."
The gentle clop-clop of the Park Service mules reminded former barge skipper Albert Bowers, 77, of the time Maude and Bill, a pair of mules he broke himself, returned the favor by breaking his ribs.
"I was just a young fellow, going to curry them, and I jumped in their stable on the front of the boat and scared them," chuckled Bowers. "I had to wait half a day till we got to a place we could stop. It was my own fault. I learned to respect mules after that."
The real boats were twice the size of the tourist barge and took about two weeks to make a round trip, Bowers said. Each barge took along four mules - two to pull while the other two rested in the stable on the bow.
"It took two people to run the boat, and we'd got from about 5 a.m. until 9 at night, carrying from 112 to 118 tons of coal. It took us about two weeks to go round trip."
"There were small stores by most of the lockhouses," said ex-boatman Knode. "It took about 10 minutes to go through a lock, and we'd go out for supplies while we were locking through."
Sixty-year-old Josephine Geisler said she thinks of the barge as the love boat of its era.
"My mother and father met working on a canal boat," she smiled. "He started in Georgetown as a boatman and she got on in Hancock to do the cooking and washing. She was 19 and he was about 18. They were married in 1912."
As the barge pulled back into the Georgetown dock, the young guides led the oldsters in a chorus of "Oh Susanna."
"Everything's changed, this used to all be warehouses," sighed Knode, eyeing the rows of posh shops with a slow nod of his head. "I sure do miss them days."