Newton V. (Catfish) Burkhart has lived in Brunswick for most of his 58 years, next to the Potomac River where it surges through jagged rocks. He knows every inlet, every falling tree and every twist and turn along the water in this stretch, 50 miles north of Washington.
But to the "Mayor of Potomac Flats," as some residents of this Frederick County railroad town call him, time on the river bank is running out.
Nearly 10 years after the federal government moved hundreds of people off their land along the river for completion of the C&O Canal National Historical Park--a park that even National Park Service officials acknowledge may take years to finish--Burkhart remains the last holdout in Brunswick.
The Park Service believes it has already acquired his property, but Burkhart doesn't want to leave. On May 9, the government deposited $10,477 for Burkhart into the registry of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, transferring Burkhart's one-acre tract along the river to the Park Service. The Park Service has told Burkhart to move out by Sept. 10.
Since Congress authorized the park in 1971, the Park Service has acquired 8,700 acres of land from 800 owners along the C&O Canal, which follows the river for 185 miles from Georgetown in the District to Cumberland, Md. Very little private property is still held along the waterway.
In 1974, 50 Brunswick residents sold their riverside property to the government for $8,000 to $10,000. Some stayed on temporarily on low-rent leases but after a few years almost all the property in town was abandoned, except for Burkhart's.
"I asked the official if the leases could be broken and when they planned to develop the land. But the G-man said he didn't know. So I wasn't going to sign," Burkhart said.
But even then, Burkhart knew his days on the river were numbered. The abandoned homes were burned down and the remains removed. Some people who had lived there moved into town, others upstream.
Since then, government appraisers have harassed him "dozens of times," Burkhart said, yet the park land remains undeveloped.
Burkhart, who dropped out of school in the third grade, earns $20,000 a year as a yard brakeman for the Chessie System in Brunswick. Burkhart says that if the government forces him to leave, he will buy a house in Brunswick, but "I've never been able to find a single piece of land equal to what I have now."
Sandra Alley, a spokeswoman for the Park Service, said the land was acquired to protect it as a historical monument and to conserve wildlife. She said that although the government has no immediate plans to develop much of the property along the canal, it intends to expand a towpath in back of Burkhart's property for hikers. The City of Brunswick also intends to build an alternate road there for its water and sewer treatment center.
But some town residents agree with Burkhart and believe he should be allowed to remain on his property because the towpath runs behind it.
"He is an individualist, and he's fighting for what's his. I think the government should let him alone," said Mary Cook, who works at the post office.
Burkhart contends the land is still his because he was never informed of a court hearing last November.
Justice Department attorney Michael Baker, who represented the Park Service in the matter, asserts Burkhart was informed of the condemnation hearing, which was held in Baltimore without him.
Park Service spokesmen said they have repeatedly sent letters to Burkhart, but the letters were returned.
Even then, Burkhart was given 10 days to file objections, but he did not, Baker said. Now, Park Service officials say, if Burkhart refuses to leave the property by Sept. 10, he may be evicted by U.S. marshals.
"I love my river, it's my home," Burkhart said. "Why, if I had to move in town, it would be like dying."