According to a display next to the National Park Service’s Visitor Center in Georgetown, there were public, mule-drawn canal boat rides offered between 1942 and 2010. In fact, the last of these tour boats appears to still be in the canal between Thomas Jefferson and 31st streets. Can you tell us anything about these boats?

— John McCarthy, Washington

Answer Man can tell you that the boat currently in Georgetown is on its last legs. Or would be, if boats had legs, which they don’t. Let’s just say it isn’t seaworthy — not even canal-worthy.

In the summer of 2011, Park Service personnel noticed cracks in the hull of the boat, aptly named the Georgetown.

“We brought in a marine surveyor, who thoroughly examined the boat and decided that it had severe deterioration,” said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. “The damage was severe enough that we were compelled to take it out of service.”

The tourist attraction had been around since the 1940s. Just 20 years after the C&O Canal had ceased being used for shipping goods in 1924, it became a tourist attraction. Pas-
sengers could pay for a 1.5-mile ride, starting at 30th Street NW and heading west. It stopped well short of the canal’s actual end, 185 miles away in Cumberland, Md., and it didn’t duplicate the punishing, raucous life of a canal man, but it had its own appeal.

From the beginning, visitors noted that it was a lazy, tranquil way to bob about in the big, bustling city. Similar rides were offered — and are offered still — farther up the canal, at Great Falls.

When Hurricane Agnes swept through the region in 1972, it destroyed portions of the C&O Canal. The Georgetown canal trips were stopped for four years as the damaged sections were repaired and rewatered. In 1976, it was announced that the trips would resume in time for the bicentennial, but with a difference: The company with the contract to provide the rides had a newly built canal-style boat powered by a diesel engine. No mules necessary.

Using mules as power requires some modest mule infrastructure: pens, feed, a well-maintained towpath, mule-wranglers. Switching to diesel would remove the need for any of it.

Washingtonians were not happy. “A canal barge with an engine?” an editorial in The Washington Post fumed. “One might as well take tourists up the towpath in a bus.”

The contractor relented, and the mules were reinstated. You won’t get anywhere fast in a boat towed by a mule, but you will get there.

Then, about two years ago, it was apparent that the Georgetown was unsafe.

The Park Service could replace it with what’s called a canal launch — a smaller, electric-powered boat. That’s entirely historical. Battery-powered boats once plied the canal.

It should be noted that the Georgetown is not a historic canal boat but a modern replica, with a fiberglass hull over a balsa wood core. Even so, it looks cool, and the town of Hancock, Md., expressed some interest in putting the boat on static display.

“Unfortunately for them, we didn’t deem the boat capable of surviving a bumpy ride up 270 and out 70,” Kevin said. “Somebody would have to be picking up the pieces along the way.” The boat will need to be towed to Fletcher’s Cove and disassembled, its pieces hauled to a landfill.

But wait! The Georgetown Business Improvement District has expressed interest in raising money to build a replacement. It figures having an example on display could help with the fundraising.

In the meantime, could the Park Service start the electric launch service? No. “There isn’t enough space with the current boat in drydock in order for the canal launch to pivot and turn around,” Kevin said.

But even if it were removed today, boat rides would not be offered on that stretch of the canal anytime soon. There isn’t money in the budget for boat rides of any sort in Georgetown.

So the leaky canal boat will stay. “What we’re hoping to do at this point is raise enough money to get a new boat built and to also help get the interpretation program started,” said Georgetown BID chief executive Joe Sternlieb.

Why bother?

“I think that Georgetown is probably the most interesting neighborhood if you’re tracking the growth and development of the city of Washington,” Joe said. “It’s quite remarkable how gritty it was and how it’s being transformed still.”

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