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One barge secured, another still stranded on Potomac River

Barges with construction equipment broke loose from moorings in western Maryland; one traveled 26 miles along the river into W. Va.

One of two construction barges that got stuck along the Potomac River after heavy rains. (National Park Service)
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One of two barges carrying construction and repair equipment that broke loose of their moorings along the Potomac River last weekend has been pulled safely to shore, officials said, but the other remained stuck on the remnants of a dam above Harpers Ferry.

Officials with the National Park Service said the tale of the getaway barges started on May 7, when a barge with an excavator and other equipment on it broke loose near an $18 million construction project to restore McMahon’s Mill along the C&O Canal National Historical Park, in western Maryland’s Washington County.

Heavy rains and flooding had hit the region; Park Service officials said the area near McMahon’s Mill saw “five times as much rain” as it normally gets. The barges, along with trees and branches and a heavy water flow pushed one of them down the river to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

“With high-water events anything is possible,” said Christiana Hanson, a spokeswoman for the C&O Canal National Historical Park. “You always plan for the worst, and this was one of those worst case scenarios.”

By Monday morning, the river’s waters were “very, very high,” said Hanson, “and the crest had breached.”

One of the barges got carried by the strong current over a dam downriver from Harpers Ferry and then pinned there, according to officials with the Park Service. On Thursday, officials said the construction contractor was able to secure the barge with a tugboat and pull it safely to the shore at a private residence on the West Virginia side.

The second, larger barge — which is about 120 feet by 40 feet — remained stuck on the remnants of a dam above Harpers Ferry. Officials said the contractor is monitoring it 24/7 and trying to figure out a way to get it safely to shore.

Initially, there was some concern the flooded river would carry the barges downstream and endanger bridges, but those concerns subsided with the water levels.

Hanson said the barges have inflated pontoons underneath them to keep them floating, but the larger one has leaked. “They’re trying to get a line to it and make sure it doesn’t go anywhere,” she said.

Officials said it could take several more days to secure the other barge. Visitors are advised to keep their distance from the areas where the barges are stuck and may find some parts of the C&O Canal closed.

Crews are working with the contractor, along with the Park Service and the Maryland Department of the Environment, to figure out the impact of any spills of equipment or other items and to the waterway.