Less than one of the 184.5 miles that make up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is located in Georgetown, where it originates.
This section of the District of Columbia is the last remnant in the nation’s capital of a bygone transportation era that lasted for nearly a century.
And it has seen better days.
More than two years ago, funding cuts put an end to the living history tours that for years tugged tourists up and down the canal on a mule-drawn boat called The Georgetown.
The National Park Service, which runs the entire canal as a linear national historic park, now closes its visitor’s center in Georgetown for much of the year, opening it with limited hours in the summer.
“After 29 years of service on the C&O Canal, the canal boat Georgetown has been decommissioned due to structural problems that have rendered it unsafe,” reads a sign on the visitor’s center door. “It has been determined that the vessel cannot be repaired, and it is unclear when or if a replacement can be procured.”
Not far from the center, the battered boat (which was built in 1982 to look like a much older vessel) is high and mostly dry — centered on rails, still covered in snow on a chilly March afternoon.
But Maggie Downing doesn’t want to leave it that way. Downing was hired in October to fill the newly minted position of destination manager at the Georgetown Business Improvement District.
Drawing more people to the canal, to interact with its living history, is her top priority.
Following a trend that is beginning to guide developers throughout DC and other urban regions, Georgetown is working to embrace its waterfront as a treasured resource for visitors and residents.
The city recently turned a parking lot along the Potomac River into a waterfront park. The area already features two boathouses and access to the river for those who seek it, but organizers want to do more.
The BID’s director, Joe Sternlieb, during a panel discussion on development along DC’s two rivers last June, said that one of the primary requests from Georgetown residents and planners is that more be done with and along the waterfront.
“If no one else [takes leadership], we at the BID will push hard to build boathouses and have more access for the kayakers and boaters, more tour boats and access to Roosevelt Island,” Sternlieb said, referring to the District-owned island in the Potomac that is accessible by road only from the Virginia side.
Ideas like airborne gondolas that are carried over the water on a cable, water taxis and a pedestrian bridge over the Potomac were floated in the BID’s 15-year plan for Georgetown.
But, for the near future, the waterway running through the heart of Georgetown — almost unbeknownst to many of its visitors — is a focus for improvement.
“Activating the canal is the highest priority on my list,” said Downing, who last worked on the city’s neighborhood heritage trails for the nonprofit, Cultural Tourism DC. “It’s really a fascinating little relic that we have here.”
While she was still in school at George Washington University, Downing worked at one of Georgetown’s most popular coffee shops, Baked & Wired, located next to the canal on Thomas Jefferson Street.
The road is one of the few street-level access points to the canal, a place where visitors and residents alike realize — sometimes out of the blue — that a historic water trail runs through this part of the city. Downing is working to get new signs approved that would point people from popular shopping spots on M Street Northwest to the canal that is practically invisible just a block away.
On a March afternoon, passers-by took a break on a bridge along Thomas Jefferson Street, where the canal first becomes visible to most, to photograph the snow-covered Georgetown at its frozen post.
The canal’s water level is raised in the summer months and lowered in the winter, when it sometimes freezes over. Downing said a few people took advantage of the frozen conditions and skated or played hockey on the canal this winter, which is permitted by the park service.
“I’m sure there are great historic images of that,” Downing said.
But her focus, for now, is getting the canal ready for spring and summer, DC’s busiest seasons.
BID is working with the National Park Service to raise at least $1 million to build a new boat. One idea is to build the boat in plain sight of visitors in an empty grass lot that’s owned by the Park Service along the canal.
Until now, the Park Service had offered some form of historic interpretation on the canal since the 1970s, using the boat to tell the story of this man-made waterway and the ahead-of-its-time technology that created its intricate system of locks.
Visitors are left to interpret the canal, and this mysterious boat, on their own, with the help of a few time line panels that describe the waterway’s history.
“So we’re missing this important element by not having the boat up and running,” Downing said.
Downing said it’s still “a subject of great debate” whether the boat will return in its previous mule-drawn state or be powered by an engine — or a combination of both.
The Park Service’s tours included mules on the towpath —that’s why it’s called a towpath — tugging the boat down the canal at a glacial pace while interpreters dressed in historic garb told its story. But the boat could also find additional uses — and, perhaps, revenue — it if were also powered and able to be rented out for private events.
Despite the canal’s dormant status, its towpath continues to be widely used by cyclists, walkers and runners looking for an urban path “that doesn’t feel like an urban path.” Biking the length of the canal’s towpath remains a rite of passage for cycling enthusiasts, even if the path has become difficult to navigate in places.
The gravel portion of the path in Georgetown has shrunk to 2 or 3 feet wide in places, making passage along the canal precarious. Downing said BID would like to help restore its section of the path to its full width by leveling out the sand that’s built up over the years to fill holes. Stripping it down to the height of the wall could restore its width up to 10 feet in places, Downing said.
The BID is also considering how it could add to the recreational opportunities offered on the canal. Organizers would like to add a small boat launch that would make kayaking or canoeing possible in the nearly 1-mile section between locks in Georgetown.
“We have been thinking about Georgetown lately as a real destination for fitness in the city,” Downing said, noting the convergence of several popular trails in the city and its proximity to major waterways.
Georgetown is also home to upscale fitness retailers like Patagonia, Athleta and Lululemon Athletica.
“Twenty years ago, Georgetown was the neighborhood to go to if you came to Washington,” Downing said. “Now, all these other neighborhoods are much safer (than they were), more accessible and have great dining options. So we want to make sure that Georgetown remains the No. 1 visitor destination.”