The operation of the C&O Canal lock was a little miracle of human ingenuity and mule muscle.

When a boat came in, the work crew would blow a horn and cry "Lock ready!" The heavy wooden gate would be closed behind the boat and water pumped in using a paddle wheel. When the water rose, lifting the boat, the crew would open the gate at the front of the lock. The boat could then proceed as two strong mules on the dirt towpath strained at ropes attached to the vessel.

A skilled crew could execute the operation in 10 minutes, and it had to if it wanted to stay on top of traffic. On a busy day in the canal's busiest year, 1875, 200 boats would pass through Lock 20 next to the Great Falls Tavern, carrying coal along a stretch of tranquil brown water where today only kayakers roam.

The Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern want to bring the experience back. For decades, children visiting the canal on field trips or with their parents were able to ride on an authentic packet boat. It allowed them to learn how a canal works and to soak up the history of a place that was once one of the nation's major commercial arteries. The excursion drew more than 18,000 visitors a year, 10,000 of them children.

The hands-on history lessons came to an end in 2003, when the National Park Service rangers' boat, the Canal Clipper III, began to sink one day. The 30-year-old boat was repaired, but it eventually was retired after it became clear that its deteriorating concrete-and-steel hull could not be salvaged.

The group is looking for money for the construction of a $600,000 double-decker boat. They are about halfway there; the state government provided $200,000 in its last legislative session. Even students at nearby Seven Locks Elementary School have pitched in.

Recently, on a humid night that threatened but never delivered a thunderstorm, the group pushed for more money by bringing in some canal celebrities: two attractive sisters in their twenties named Ida and Ellie, along with their friend Molly.

They were mules.

The old canal horn was blown, and the mules paraded in, escorted by park rangers in period clothing: for the men, old jeans and checked, placket-front shirts with suspenders; for the women, skirts and sun hats. The 19th-century outfits were complemented by steel-toed boots to protect against a misstep by the mules.

Ida and Ellie, true to their relationship, appeared nearly identical: tall, dark and rippling with muscle. Well, not exactly. Since they've stopped pulling the Canal Clipper III, both have developed a bit of "hay belly" -- the paunch that comes from not exercising. Molly, a pony mule, is light brown and smaller than the others.

Park rangers Lynn Barrett, Kathleen Kelly and Mark Myers explained the mules' origins and use on the canal for an attentive audience of about 75 people. The quiet mules, appearing alternately bored and distressed by the sight of helicopters flying by, occasionally stamped their feet or pulled back a few steps.

Mules, which cannot reproduce, are a cross between a female horse, a mare, and a male donkey, a jack. They are considered ideal work animals: Stronger than a horse, a mule has the donkey's personality, intelligence and giant ears. The animal's sense of self-preservation is what gave rise to the phrase "stubborn as a mule," for the mule will not work itself to death, unlike a horse.

Coursing Commerce

If the C&O Canal was the interstate highway of the 19th century, the mule-boat teams that traveled along it were the 18-wheeler trucks. Black gold once traveled on those brown waters: not oil, but the coal needed to warm the nation's capital. It came in 120-ton barges, which also carried corn, wheat, flour and lumber down the 184.5-mile canal from Cumberland, Md., to Washington. In 1875, the barges moved 973,805 tons of cargo.

Traveling on a boat was a family affair: Every member had a responsibility. The care of the mules fell to children at age 6 or 7, Kelly said, and it was a first step on the road to adulthood. They walked the road in 30-mile daily stretches, often traveling at night, never knowing what critters lurked in the foreboding sycamore and tulip poplar trees that line the route.

"These mules became their best friends," Kelly said. "Who do you tell your secrets to? Well, look at those ears."

The canal is a quiet place now, and those trees do not look quite so scary. The railroad engine, bigger, faster, stronger and cheaper to operate, rendered mules and canals obsolete, and by the 1920s traffic on the canal had petered out. Now it is a place where people relax, taking strolls, canoeing, bicycling or camping out.

At the recent gathering, summer park ranger Tommy Siegel played 19th-century standards such as "Oh, Susannah" on a guitar with Barbara Collins. Siegel said he goes to the canal to escape the stresses of life as a student at George Washington University.

"For me, living in the city can get kind of crazy," he said. When it does, he hikes along the canal, sometimes spending the night. "When you come back, it's like a whole new world," he said.

June Reid used to take her daughter, Joslyn Bonard, to the canal when they needed to talk over the problems and puzzles of life. Now Bonard, all grown up, takes foreign visitors there. The visitors include her husband, Michel, who compared the charms of Washington's canal park to those of his home town, Paris.

"It's absolutely unique," he said.

Elie Cain sat in a chair under a white event tent as officials encouraged the visitors to begin bidding in an auction of photos and to write big checks. Each donation had a class based on its size: "Water Level Gift," "Tow Rope Gift" and so on.

"Wouldn't you like to be part of the 'Mule Team?' " Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) asked.

This was a fundraiser, after all.

But Cain, who used to canoe around the area as a youngster, was relaxed.

"I've known this canal for many a year," she said. "It's special because the world around us in Washington, D.C., is so busy, and it's so peaceful to come down here and hear the roar of the water on the rocks, see an eagle every now and then, see the turtles sunning themselves."

Indeed, you could hear the canal's water sluicing through the gate, see visitors looking down at the water from a footbridge and see a few people trekking along the towpath, traveling in the footsteps of mules and children from more than a century ago.

"It just kind of restores your soul, you know?" Cain said. "Just sitting here right now, I feel the tension draining out."

For more information about the fundraising effort, send an e-mail to or call 301-424-0229.

Lynn DeForge, from left, and her granddaughters Maria and Joanna Troisi take in today's quiet atmosphere at the canal. Canoeing, bicycling and camping are also popular along the canal. A man walks mules towing a boat. Mostly coal was transported on the canal from 1828 to 1924. Park ranger Mark Myers, in period costume and with mule Ellie, gives a presentation on the history of the 184-mile C&O Canal. Park ranger Tommy Siegel, from left, Barbara Collins and Ron Wilson perform at a recent canal boat fundraiser.