Raymond Riley piloted his first barge down the C&O Canal at the age of 15. It was loaded with 4,000 bushels of wheat and overdue at a wharf in Georgetown. His father John, who tended a lock on the Canal, had some misgivings. But not Riley: He hooked a team of mules to the barge and launched his riverboat career.
Last weekend, Riley stood beside the stone lockhouse in Seneca where he was born, an 87-year-old man with a spot of tobacco juice on his whiskered chin, and marveled at the new uses made of long gone pieces of his life.
"You can go on in and take a look," said Riley, pointing to the whitewashed entrance of a house that has been turned into a museum by the Park Service, staffed each weekend by Girl Scouts and Brownies in period costumes. The house isn't exactly what he remembers, Riley will admit, but then neither is the Canal. Traffic still is thick. But the mule-powered barges loaded with wheat, coal and corn have been replaced by canoes, bicycles and joggers.
Traffic was thick as summer on the Canal last weekend. The week of warm days propelled an army of folks outdoors -- white-legged hikers in shorts, bicyclists shifting newly oiled gears, and a few anglers working the kinks out of casting arms grown rusty from lack of use.
Doug Watts invited me for a day of preseason practice in his backyard, which slopes to the shore of Seneca Creek, about a half-mile from its meeting with the Potomac. From the flat surface of a stone wall, you can cast into the slow moving, brown water, or sit and watch a bobber glide downstream.
Despite the 70-degree day, we knew the water would be too cold for good fishing. The bass and catfish would likely be in the deep water of the Potomac. Any fish in the Seneca would be moving about as fast as 40-weight motor oil. But the act of fishing provides its own rewards. And every cast caught a memory or two worth retrieving.
"Let's take a hike. I'll show you a nice spot nearby," Watts said after an hour of watching the water. We climbed a deer trail on the wooded side of a hill across from his home. Beyond a few strands of barbed wire, we emerged from the woods onto a cornfield, studded with the stubble of last season's crop. The landscape was a dozen shades of cream. It looked surreal under a summer sky.
"This is the old stone quarry," Watts said as we reentered a wood and came abruptly to the top of a cliff. The cliff was created 100 years ago by workers at the Seneca Stone Cutting Mill. The red sandstone they cut from the Potomac shore was taken by carts on a narrow gauge railway to a mill whose walls still stand.
From the mill, it was loaded onto barges for the trip to Georgetown, where it was used to build many of Washington's classic stone houses, including the Smithsonian Castle.
"Both my father and grandfather worked at that mill," Riley said. We met him at the end of our hike. He was standing by a historical marker that provided a brief history of the lockhouse. A stream of people entered the house, unaware of the living history watching them pass.
Riley's family moved from the lockhouse when he was 5, after his sister drowned. She was making mudpies in the creek behind the house, climbed onto a fish box and sank. John Riley pulled his 3-year-old daughter's body from the creek with a rake, then moved his family to a house a mile from the water.
But Raymond Riley spent nearly every day with his father at the lockhouse, fishing, exploring and helping to open and close the gates that let the barges through. The stories he tells of those days are filled with characters we recognize only from local road signs and place names -- Will Tschiffely, Ap Violette, Bob and Jess Swain, George Pennyfield . . . .
We left Riley beside his house and returned to Watts', which is one of only a few left beside the Creek. Most were swept away by floods, especially one spawned by Agnes in 1971.
"What do you say we catch some fish?" said Watts, who had put on a new fishing vest for the occasion. For 20 minutes, he crouched above a worm-covered hook, watching a red-and-white bobber jiggle, evidence that a fish was nibbling the bait. After a half-dozen attempts to set the hook, I was positive it was only a minnow. But Watts persisted.
Suddenly the bobber disappeared beneath the surface. Watts yanked the rod and reeled in a seven-inch bass. It was too small to keep, but the feel of it in my hand, twisting to escape, was a fine thing to feel on a weekend in February.