Grand Old Ditch Pays Dividends in Recreation, Environment, Budget

Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

On the Fourth of July, in the year 1828, President John Quincy Adams turned the first shovel of earth in Georgetown, Md., for what would become the nation’s “Grand Old Ditch,” a 185-mile canal that snaked alongside the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md.

Ominously, on that same day 40 miles to the north, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the symbolic cornerstone for the B&O railroad that would be largely responsible for driving the C&O Canal out of business.

It is popular but untrue to say that the canal was a failure. Construction came at no small price — costly engineering, land disputes, labor unrest, disease and drunken brawls among the help plagued the project from Day One. But the finished lumber, brick and plaster sent upstream built out the frontier, while the grain and coal sent downstream fed and fueled the Eastern Seaboard.

As for its longevity, our venerable Interstate highway system will have to serve for another half-century before it equals the amount of time that the C&O was in service.

But as much good as the canal might have done in terms of transportation in the nation’s formative years, it is today a remarkable symbol of what can happen when the needs of recreation, the environment and the economy coincide. The canal, now the heart of a ribbon of a National Park that sees 4 million visitors a year, does yeoman’s work for the Chesapeake Bay, protecting the Potomac from erosion, runoff and deforestation that continues to plague the opposite shoreline.

“We are so privileged to have such an expansive stretch of parkland as a buffer,” said Mary Jo Veverka of the C&O Canal Trust.

But this guardian angel for the Bay was never a given.

In 1924, a flood put the canal out of business for good, and the Grand Old Ditch became a sorry repository for river-towns’ raw sewage. The canal languished until 1938, when it was obtained by the federal government, which was not necessarily a good thing.

All sorts of bright ideas cropped up, including a vision of an automobile parkway and series of dams on the Potomac that would have inundated all manner of historic communities.

The day was saved by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who led a forced march along the towpath for the press and basically anyone else who would listen, raising public awareness of the canal’s historical and environmental value.

Today, the canal is a lesson in preservation.

Unlikely as it might seem, the canal towpath is something of a commuter path leading bicyclists to work into Washington, D.C. Farther west, it is the go-to physical fitness facility for bikers, joggers and strollers, all of whom are likely to see deer, wild turkey, fox and myriad seasonal wildflowers. A scowling old owl is a frequently remarked-upon landmark near Williamsport, Md.

But more than anything, the canal has become the foundation for environmentally attuned advocates for clean streams and healthy ecosystems. These volunteers — hundreds, if not thousands of them — cost taxpayers nothing, yet improve the quality of life and the quality of the Bay by cleaning up the riverbank and shoring up decaying parts of the towpath.

This helps mitigate what Veverka calls the “permanent underfunding” of our national parks.

As we approach the centennial anniversary of our national park system, Congress might consider that money spent in parks is in truth money saved. We think of parks as a form of recreation, which they are. But they are so much more.

In 2011, national parks were visited nearly 300 million times. Within 60 miles of these parks, visitors spent $13 billion. National parks supported a quarter of a million jobs.

But that’s just gravy. Our parks breathe in rainwater and exhale oxygen, flora and fauna. The C&O Canal is not merely a transportation memory, it is a great filter for the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. It attracts legions of volunteers who scrub the environment of contaminants and interpret our nation’s history.

The sequester and other budget cuts have damaged our nation’s fabric in many areas, but perhaps no more so than in our parks. When we allow our heritage to decay, our nation decays along with it.

The C&O Canal thrived a century ago, but today it is still paying dividends for those who value the environment, our history and, yes, our national budget. It is not an area in which we should skimp.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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