It was the “first regularly formed boat” on the canal — probably made of white oak and yellow pine, with its name prominently displayed, and a cargo hold that could carry 800 barrels of flour all the way to Georgetown.
Now, 185 years after the Lady Washington made headlines, and nine years after the C&O Canal in Georgetown last had a boat, craftsmen are building a new one for the legendary body of water that helped define an era.
For the moment, the unnamed vessel sits in two pieces in side-by-side work buildings on Lynch Cove, off Bear Creek, in Dundalk, Md. They resemble the halves of a huge bathtub, but when bolted together at the Roudebush Yacht and Engine Works there they will form the hull of an 80-foot-long canal boat.
Once finished, the 18-ton craft will still be pulled by mules, as were canal boats of old, but will be outfitted with small electric motors for trips when the mules are not required.
And instead of oak and pine, the bulk of the boat is being built of lightweight panels of high-density, polyurethane foam reinforced with layers of fiberglass.
It’s so light that the boat will require ballasts of about 12,000 pounds of lead ingots to keep its battery-powered motors submerged in the water.
Final assembly and “sea trials” are scheduled for the fall, and the boat is expected to make its canal debut early next year.
The boat was designed by Tridentis, the Alexandria naval architecture firm, for Georgetown Heritage, the nonprofit working to revitalize historical Georgetown and its one-mile stretch of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
Tridentis does mostly high-tech work for the Defense Department, on such things as aircraft carriers and submarines. “We’ve never designed or built a mule-powered canal boat before,” said Chris Addington, the project’s program manager.
He said Georgetown Heritage and the National Park Service, which runs the historical park, wanted the new boat to preserve the “soul” of the old boats.
“It still has the look of the original,” Addington said. “We worked … to try to design a boat that has the soul but is also a … 21st-century constructed vessel.”
The firm studied old drawings of the canal’s locks and boats.
From those, Addington said, “we’ve been able to glean things such as the exterior visuals — where the windows were located, what did they look like.”
A previous boat, the old blue-and-white Georgetown, operated for almost 30 years, but was decommissioned in 2011 due to extensive damage. It sat moldering in the canal, until 2016, when Georgetown Heritage and the National Park Service removed it.
“It was made of wood, which was water logged and damaged over time,” Addington said.
Georgetown Heritage wanted to reduce maintenance as much as possible for the new boat.
“They wanted it to last fifty years, with as little updating and overhauling as we can get,” he said. So the boat is being built with planks of a material called Coosa, which is made in Pelham, Ala.
“It’s not going to rot, get water logged, [or] deform,” Addington said. “It’s going to last for a really long time.”
For today’s passengers there’s also cabin lighting, an interior sound system, and possibly webcams.
The modern amenities might amaze the canal boaters of the past. But the experience on the waterway beside the Potomac River is the same.
“It is not easy to imagine a more delightful excursion,” a traveler on a packet, or passenger, boat wrote in early 1831, according to a National Park Service research study by Harlan D. Unrau.
“The boat is very handsomely fitted and furnished,” the traveler wrote.
“The bridges over the canal are few; and a moderate inclination of the body enables those who stand on the roof … of the boat to pass under them,” he wrote in a Washington newspaper. “Those who remain in the cabin are as much at ease and as comfortable as if they were in their parlors or drawing rooms at home.”
The canal currently has an 1870s reproduction packet boat at Great Falls, in Potomac, Md., and 1890s reproduction launches in Williamsport.
In its prime in the mid-to-late 1800s, scores of boats — for cargo and passengers — used the 184 miles of the canal between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md.
The boats were pulled by mules who walked the tow path harnessed with ropes to the vessels.
When not on duty, the animals lived on board with the boat operators and their families. The mules were often led by children who sometimes rode the mule to spare their feet, according to Unrau’s research.
There were tolls, speed limits and traffic regulations issued by the canal company.
The speed limit was 4 mph. The penalty for speeding was $5.
A boat being passed by another had to pull over to the side opposite the tow path and lower its tow rope so the faster boat could go over it.
Leaky boats were not permitted on the canal. Boats were required to have their names painted so they could be seen from both sides of the canal. No carcass or dead animal could be thrown into the canal.
Passenger fares varied. An excursion from Georgetown to Great Falls and back, plus dinner at the Crommelin House — now the park service visitor center — was 50 cents.
Some boats carried 100 people. One excursion, in August 1835, included President Andrew Jackson, 50 guests and the Marine Band.
Many boats could carry as much as 150 tons of freight, which was often coal, according to Unrau.
When approaching a lock the boat’s master was required to blow his horn for 10 minutes — or knock on the door of the lock keeper’s house. If the lock keeper failed to appear, the boat master was allowed to operate the lock.
Addington, of Tridentis, said that once tested, the new boat would be taken apart and placed in storage until the spring. Painted gray with green trim, it is expected to make its canal debut March 20, 2021.
The cost for the preservation project and the boat’s construction is $1.5 million, and is being paid for with a grant from the District, said Georgetown Heritage executive director Jeffrey L. Nichols.
“We’re actively pursuing naming rights to the boat through individuals,” Nichols said. “It can’t be corporate or anything like that … We’re looking for a donor who would be willing to endow the boat and help us name it.”
Meanwhile, a crew has to be hired, he said, and mules must be acquired.
Two are needed.
They won’t be living on board.