Large sections of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, heavily damaged by floods in November, will remain closed for the rest of this year while volunteers and park personnel work to repair the $9 million in damages, National Park Service officials said.
Park officials said they are counting on an emergency appropriation of $2 million to fund repair work for the rest of this fiscal year. Park Superintendent Richard Stanton said constraints placed on federal agencies by the recent deficit-reduction legislation could mean that it would be four years before the cleanup is completed.
Piles of trees, trailer parts, household goods and other debris from the floods are obstructing portions of the towpath for nearly the 184 1/2-mile length of the park, Stanton said. About two-thirds of the towpath is considered hazardous and is closed.
Much of the 160-mile stretch of towpath above Seneca, which normally attracts about 3 million visitors a year, is being posted off-limits, and people are being "discouraged" from entering, Stanton said.
The 24 miles of towpath from Georgetown to Seneca, which attracts hikers, fishermen, birdwatchers and others at the rate of about 6 million visits a year, will remain open even though it is eroded and damaged in places and is not good for biking or jogging, Stanton said.
Stanton said a 30-foot "blowout" of the canal wall south of Fletcher's Boat House near Georgetown is being repaired, and tour barges will be operating as usual there and at Great Falls this summer. Boat ramps along the length of the canal can still be used, but parking is limited.
The park service is attempting to use bulldozers where possible to clear debris, which is piled 20 feet high and hundreds of yards long in some spots. As much as a foot of silt covers the ground in many areas.
To get a start on the cleanup, park officials are making arrangements to accommodate thousands of volunteers from such organizations as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts this summer as part of the Interior Department's "Take Pride in America" parks program.
The C&O park will host a jamboree for scouts from the mid-Atlantic region in June and July, and park personnel will supervise the young people as they help clear the area. Overnight camping in the park will be restricted to eight work camps for volunteers, Stanton said. All campgrounds are currently without water and have been closed since November.
The canal has taken a number of serious blows since it was completed in 1850, including the flood of 1924, which ended its commercial usefulness, and damage caused by powerful hurricanes in 1936, 1942 and in other years. But last year's flooding, which killed 43 people in four states and caused $900 million in damage, came at a time when park service funding was being cut by about 30 percent. It took $14 million and two years to clean up after Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
In the November flooding, the Potomac overflowed the towpath and canal and inundated the nearby parkland, clogging culverts, swamping old lock houses with mud and sweeping away 20 foot bridges. Along much of the canal, the clay and gravel covering of the towpath was washed away, leaving it deeply rutted and dangerous for biking or jogging.
"When it's dry, one can walk it comfortably in several areas" near Washington, said Bruce Wood, past president of the C&O Canal Association, a group that patrols the towpath to check its condition. "If it's wet, I wouldn't try it." He said the association also is working to help clean up the debris.
Where the flood waters of the Shenandoah River joined those of the Potomac below Harpers Ferry, W.Va., "the whole towpath was blasted away," said Carrie Johnson, chairwoman of the Interior Department's advisory C&O Canal Commission. "Lock 32 can't be found. It was like a bomb hit."
She said 10- to 15-foot boulders were moved downstream and the Potomac River wall was pushed back more than a dozen feet.
Once used to haul coal and other goods from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, the canal fell into disuse with the coming of the railroad, and once faced the threat of being paved over as a highway. It was saved through the intervention of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and others, and was declared a national historic park in 1971.
Since then, thanks to regular and long-term maintenance, it has become "increasingly durable," Johnson said. One result of that care, she said, was that while all of the aqueducts were under water in the recent flooding, none was destroyed. "If this had happened five years ago," she said, "we might have lost four or five."