The wall stabilization will further prepare the canal for the arrival of the new canal boat, now under construction and due to arrive next year.
And it will recall a time when more than 500 boats plied the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., and the water echoed with the yells of boatman to lock tender.
On March 11, workers finished drilling holes in the canal and an adjacent parking lot in the area of Grace Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW to assess the underlying soil.
The work will help the Park Service design a support for the wall so the new boat can operate.
“I saw some pictures of the boat,” Park Service spokeswoman Katelyn Liming said Thursday. “It’s beautiful.”
The boat is being built at the Roudebush Yacht & Engine Works boatyard outside Baltimore, she said in a later email.
“One half of the hull has been built and work on the second half is underway,” she said. Work is still needed on the decking and canopy, along with painting and some other finishing details.
The boat is scheduled to be completed in the fall and delivered in spring 2021.
The canal hasn’t had a boat in nine years, said Jeffrey L. Nichols, executive director of Georgetown Heritage.
The old blue-and-white boat, “The Georgetown,” had operated for almost 30 years, but it was decommissioned in 2011 due to extensive damage and sat moldering in the canal.
In 2016, Georgetown Heritage and the Park Service removed the old boat in preparation for the first phase of canal restoration work.
The project is part of a multiyear effort to preserve and restore the C & O canal in Georgetown.
Last year, the Park Service marked the restoration of Locks 3 and 4 on the canal, which were constructed between 1829 and 1831. They are a few blocks east of the current work.
The Georgetown Canal Plan was prepared in partnership with Georgetown Heritage with support from the District of Columbia and the Georgetown Business Improvement District, the Park Service said.
The work on the wall “is a major milestone in the project’s development,” Nichols said in a statement earlier this year. “It’s the culmination of several years of work, a rigorous open comment period, consultation with concerned groups . . . and the agreement of our friends and partners.”
“This is not the end of the design process, but only the beginning,” he said. “There will be additional design work . . . additional design reviews, and . . . more community feedback.”
The wall stabilization project, he said, is one of many steps “that will enhance the canal for years to come.”
The Park Service recently approved the plan, which also calls for stabilization of the towpath once used by mules to pull canalboats, improved accessibility, and more open spaces.
The project will proceed “as funding becomes available,” the Park Service said.
Ground was broken on the 184.5-mile canal from Georgetown to Cumberland on July 4, 1828. It reached Harpers Ferry in 1833 and Cumberland in 1850. The canal was used to transport goods and passengers to and from western Maryland.
The cargo was often coal from the Alleghenies, loaded on boats at a large coal terminal in Cumberland.
Business on the canal peaked in 1871, when more than 500 boats were in operation and 850,000 tons of coal were shipped.
The boat operators often lived on board with their families and mule teams. Boatmen usually kept two teams of mules that took turns pulling the boat. Small children were tethered on board to prevent drowning.
The canal had 74 locks that raised and lowered boats in transit, due to the 605-foot change in elevation from the highlands of Cumberland to tidewater Georgetown. One lock lowered boats eight feet.
Many lock keepers’ dwellings survive.
It took four or five 18-hour days for a one-way trip, the Park Service wrote in a handbook about the canal. The boatman hollered or blew a tin horn or conch shell to herald their approach to a lock.
But floods and the dominance of the railroad doomed the canal. (Construction of the B & O Railroad had started the same day as that of the canal.) The canal ceased operation in 1924, erasing a way of life for many.
In 1938, the canal, which had cost $11 million to build, was sold to the federal government for $2 million and handed over to the Park Service. In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared it a national monument. And in 1971, Congress made it a national park.
The towpath and woodlands are now used for running, hiking, biking and camping.
Georgetown Heritage, a philanthropic partner to the Park Service, was formed by local residents to repair and enhance Georgetown’s one-mile section of then canal. It hired James Corner Field Operations to develop the plan.
Corner has likened the project to the 1.45-mile High Line, a rejuvenated pathway along a defunct railroad line in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
“It is a little like the High Line in New York, in that it’s an overlooked place,” Corner, whose firm designed it, said in 2017. “The whole idea of the High Line is to amplify what is already there.”