A link with history may disappear this month. At Great Falls Park, Patowmack Canal Locks No. 1 and No. 2, in need of restoration, will be buried under tons of gravel by the National Park Service. Once the locks are filled in, it is unlikely they will ever be restored.
These particular locks are important not only because of their age and their stonework but because they are reminders of and monuments to the evolution of the Constitution of the United States.
"Waterway That Led to the Constitution, George Washington's Canal" was the headline in the June issue of National Geographic. The article refers, of course, to the Patowmack (Potomac) Canal. George Washington was one of the first to see the importance of making the Potomac River navigable and linking it with the Ohio River system in order to open the western lands to settlement. He was the first president of the Patowmack Company and planned for the canal, which would become part of this link. (The Patowmack Company was in operation from 1784-1828.)
In 1785 Washington was faced with state tariff disputes as he made plans to expand Potomac River navigation. The first convention to attempt to resolve interstate commerce questions and other issues was held at Mt. Vernon. Another convention followed, which led to the Constitutional Convention. With George Washington as presiding officer, it produced the Constitution of the United States. That's why the National Geographic very aptly described the Patowmack Canal as the "Waterway that Led to the Constitution."
The stones of Lock #1 and Lock #2 of the canal -- some still showing original stone cutters' marks -- are in need of stabilization. Most of the stones are in place, but because of general erosion of soil caused by dampness and tree roots, some stones are slipping. The Park Service has proposed a method of preservation to be implemented in the near future. This entails filling these locks with gravel. It seems very likely that once they are filled in, the gravel will never be removed to permit a future restoration, which should be the ultimate goal.
Many members of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, through careful calculations, have come to the conclusion that a bracing of the stones can be done less expensively than covering the locks with gravel. A wooden bracing system would work efficiently and safely, leaving the stonework where it can be seen by the thousands of tourists and neighbors who come to visit, enjoy and learn about these historic structures each year. The braces could be dismantled when restoration is possible.
Let's not bury these monuments under tons of gravel. It could mean that we and future generations could never see them again. Doing so would be particularly ironic in this bicentennial year of the signing of the Constitution. -- Myles R. Howlett and Vivienne Mitchell are president and vice president of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.