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Accompanied by the Past: Douglas Hike: Dargan Bend to Brunswick

Note: Mileages are taken from Hahn’s Towpath Guide.

The longest version of this year’s Douglas Hike covers about ten miles between Dargan Bend (mi. 64.89) and Brunswick (mi. 55). These miles include some of the richest history, most dramatic scenery, and most important structures along the canal, and you won’t want to miss any of it. In fact, before setting off downstream, good walkers may want to walk about a third of a mile up the towpath to view the abandoned limestone kilns on the berm (mi. 65.21). These were connected with nearby quarries and operated by O. J. Shinham through World War II and for a number of years after the war (Hahn says until 1960, p. 115; Davies estimates until 1950–52, p. 224).

Mile 65.10 may mark the upper end of the ruins of the Potomac Refining Company. Hahn (p. 115) refers to this as the “beginning” of their holdings and works , but Davies (p. 221) locates them north of the waste weir at mi. 62.5 — although at some point he inserted a hand-written note in the margin that reads: “?? check if this is not at Dargan Q[uarry].” In 1910, the company issued a 12.5" x 9", twenty-four page, well-illustrated booklet with a cover that boasted: “Sixty Dollars a Second: The Business that Makes Men Millionaires.” The booklet explains “Why and How Manganese Shows 900 percent Profit,” and included sections titled: “Enough Limestone to Keep 1,000 Men Working 100 Years,” “A Big Fortune in Marble Alone,” “Acres of Iron Await Refining,” and “Ochre, Tripoli and Fireclay Make a Rich Trinity.” It is also emphasized that the site has “a direct water route from the dock of our property down the C. & O. Canal.”

Also referred to in the Potomac Refining Company’s booklet are the three companies operating “almost within a stone’s throw”: The Bakerton Lime Kilns operating “at an estimated profit of $500,000 a year;” the Knopp Quarries, operated “continuously for three generations”; and the Virginia Ore Banks across the river “in operation over one hundred years.” As walkers head downstream through this mineral-rich area, Back Road—previously known as Shinham Road (likely after the operator/owner of the kilns mentioned above) parallels the canal to mile 64.2. Cliffs then create a dramatic river-side stretch of the canal 63.29 to 63.05. The Huckleberry Hill Hiker-Biker Overnighter (HBO) is passed at mile 62.56.

Mile 62.44 to 62.33 contains lift locks 36 and 35. At Lock 36, the current trail leaves the towpath and continues on a high embankment that encircles a low area containing the ruins of a lockhouse, before crossing over the filled-in remains of the Dam 3 Guard lock, and following beside the inlet canal that carried water to the C&O canal that it joined just below lock 35. Walkers are urged, however, to follow the towpath down to Lock 35, even though the absence of the bridge that carried the towpath over the inlet lock will necessitate a return to Lock 36 and the embankment service road. It’s only a few extra steps and well worth taking them.

Lock 35 is very important because of the drydock on the berm side of the lock—one of two still to be found, although the other (beside Lock 47 at Four Locks), is overgrown and nearly-completely-destroyed. Lock 36 is likewise important because, as Davies (p. 219) reports, “this lock was most troublesome to the boatmen because of its narrowness and short length, “89 ft. 11 inches, the only lock on the canal less than 90 ft. long.” In my Sept., 2000 article, “Those Incredible Shrinking Locks,” I discussed the problem with maintaining the lock width of 15 ft. However, the length issue is even more serious, as it raises questions about the maximum possible length of the C&O Canal freighter design. Those boats are often represented as being significantly over 90 ft. in length and sometimes even over 100 ft. Assuming Davies’ information is accurate (and I am aware of no evidence that it is wrong), the boats could not have been more than 90 ft. long with the rudder folded tightly against the end of the boat.

Originally the C&O Canal Company had planned to build its third dam below Harpers Ferry, but ultimately obtained permission to draw water from behind the Armory Dam at mile 62.27 (also known as the U.S. Potomac Dam and Armory Potomac Dam). First built between 1799 and 1800, the dam was rebuilt by engineer, expert bridge builder, and inventor Lewis Wernwag in 1828, and extended in 1832–33 to accommodate the C&O Canal. It consisted of a masonry foundation with a superstructure of square timber piers bolted together and filled with stone, and was referred to as Dam 3 in the C&O Canal Company records. (Gilbert, p. 27 and 57) The Dam 3 intake provides water for the more than forty miles of the C&O Canal between it and the Dam 2 intake at Violettes Lock (Lock 23 at mile 22.12). The Armory Dam not only provided water for the Armory Canal (also known as the U.S. Armory Potomac Canal), and later the C&O Canal, but had also watered the Patowmack Company’s Long Canal (the uppermost of the company’s five major skirting canals, which was sometimes called the House Falls Canal). The entrance to that skirting canal was on the Maryland side of the Potomac, just above the dam and very possibly at or near the location of the present C&O guard lock and inlet canal. During low water this usage for the Maryland canals sometimes resulted in inadequate water for the Armory canal, and at some point a gate was placed across the Patowmack Company’s skirting canal that had to be opened for the passage of boats.

In 1859 the government began work on the New Armory Dam that was to be a masonry dam just below the old one at mile 62.20. Work stopped with the outbreak of Civil War, and, with the destruction of the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1861, the government’s involvement in manufacturing at Harpers Ferry came to an end and work on the new dam never resumed. The abutment and some of the foundation of the dam is visible from the towpath.

All accounts indicate that the C&O Canal was built largely on the line of the Patowmack Company’s approximately one mile long canal below Dam 3. Virginia’s engineer, Thomas Moore, provided this description of the Long Canal in his report on August 1, 1820, during his survey of the Potomac to determine the feasibility of a continuous canal up the Potomac:

Below Sheppards Town the navigation is then good to the head of the long canal at the beginning of the Shenandoah Falls, the entrance to this canal is somewhat difficult in high water, it may be rendered safer by extending an abutment into the river on the lower side to prevent the strong draft of water just without the present entrance. The current is very strong through the canal, but with care safe to descend. The ascent is very laborious but is much facilitated by a substantial wall and tracking way where ropes can be used to great advantage.

The canal is squeezed between cliffs and river along much of the stretch down to Lock 34 (Goodhearts Lock). Deep rope grooves may be seen at the east end of this lock and the foundation of the lockhouse is between the towpath and river. Hahn (p. 110) included Willard Goodheart’s account of the destruction of the lockhouse in the 1836 flood. In that statement, Goodheart describes the house as brick, but Davies (p. 211) suggests the house was frame and notes his inability to find any bricks in the vicinity.

The Harpers Ferry location deserves a column of its own, but most notable of the structures at this location are Lock 33 (in the final stages of a major reconstruction by the Park Service) and a remnant of the C&O Canal’s Shenandoah River Lock. Harpers Ferry was to have been a major port on the C&O, but this was prevented by intractable problems. These difficulties were not only with the B&O Railroad, but also with the Wager family, who had inherited significant land in the town from Robert Harper, and most importantly, the Point, where the Potomac and Shenandoah meet.

The failure to establish access to the Point and Harpers Ferry meant that the river lock (one of three river locks on the canal, the others being the Goose Creek staircase locks and the Shepherdstown river lock) was not ever heavily used — if used at all — by the full-sized C&O freighters. By the Civil War, the lock was no longer wide enough to allow passage of such boats, and after its destruction in the flood of 1889, the remnants of the lock were sealed off as part of the canal’s 1890–91 reconstruction by the receivers who operated the canal after the C&O Canal Company’s 1889 bankruptcy. Changes in the river, towpath, and canal prism since 1889 are indicated by the fact that the visible remnants of the river lock are those that were at the river end of the lock.

Below Harpers Ferry was the Patowmack Company’s Shenandoah Canal—actually two short skirting canals that were, according to some sources, called by the boatmen the Bullring Canal. Thomas Moore’s 1820 report on these canals reads as follows:

About half a mile below the Ferry are two short canals (called by the boatmen—the Bullring falls), taken together with a short sheet of smooth water between them, the distance may be one quarter of a mile, the fall is 5.5 feet.

It should be noted that in most sources, including the Patowmack Company’s own records and reports, there is great confusion as to the exact location, lengths, names, and character of the canals above and below Harpers Ferry. Also, the canal down Virginius Island (on the Shenandoah side of Harpers Ferry) was sometimes called the Potomac Canal and is often confused with the Armory Canal (on the Potomac side of Harpers Ferry), with the Patowmack Company’s canal on the Maryland side of the Potomac River across from the armory, and even with the C&O Canal.

From Lock 33 down to mile 59.91 was the Long Wall—8/10ths of a mile of stone wall on the river side of the towpath that “rose from the bedrock of the river to as much as 12 ft. above the towpath level.” (Hahn, p. 98) A stone wall still exists, maintaining the towpath bank, but it is not as impressive as that on the berm that stabilizes the ledge on which the railroad operates. Farther downstream in the vicinity of mile 59, walkers headed toward Brunswick should turn at times to enjoy the view up the river toward Harpers Ferry.

You will need to have sharp eyes to recognize Lock 32 at Sandy Hook, so badly has it been damaged by flood waters as they force their way through the narrow water gap that make the views downstream from Harpers Ferry so dramatic. During operating days, this lock was frequently rebuilt or substantively repaired and it has been essentially abandoned by the Park Service—the only lift lock for which no significant efforts at protection of the remains has been made (a reasonable choice, given limited funds and this lock’s location and history).

The Millers Narrows—third in the series of four narrows that were at the heart of the B&O Railroad and C&O Canal’s legal battle for right-of-way 1828 to 1832—is encountered in the 58.99–58.72 mile area. Although an appeals court ruling on January 5, 1832, gave the canal company primary access through the narrows, the canal company lost the political battle for sole use of that route over the next year and was forced to conclude the Compromise of 1833 with the railroad. The Compromise arranged the routes for both transportation systems through those narrow points between Point of Rocks and Harpers Ferry. This was also the document that forced the B&O to the then-Virginia side of the river from Harpers Ferry up to the flats below Cumberland.

Lock 31 (mile 58.01) is located near the upper end of Weverton, the would-be industrial center of Casper Wever. The lock is of particular interest because of a mill’s tailrace that passes under the upper part of the lock — a complication that substantially increased the original construction costs of the lock. Also the towpath wall of this lock is concrete. This was necessitated by the continual shaving off of the wall’s facing stones to maintain the requisite width of the lock in the face of instability that caused the walls to lean inwards. When most of the facing stone had been removed, concrete replaced it.

Casper Wever, Weverton’s founder and prime visionary, was variously an engineer, builder of B&O Railroad bridges, rogue, dreamer, and generally a thorn in the side of the C&O Canal Company and, in the end, a problem for the railroad as well. A fuller treatment of this man awaits a future column, but Weverton is inarguably one of his more amazing undertakings. Ruins of what were intended to be factory buildings and mills can be found in the woods between the canal and the river, along with remnants of the raceway that was to have provided them with waterpower. The forebay gates for the raceway are still visible on the riverbank approximately opposite mile 57.88.

Brunswick’s Lock 30 (mile 55) boasted a swing bridge, the first of which was built by Lewis Wernwag, who is best known for his “Colossus” — a magnificent wooden arched bridge across the Schuylkill in Philadelphia (1812–1838). Wernwag also built the first bridge across the Potomac at Harpers Ferry (the Wager bridge, 1826–1838), and he worked with B&O Railroad engineer, Benjamin H. Latrobe Jr., on the railroad’s first Harpers Ferry bridge (1837–1840). Among his other bridges were the Monongahela bridge in Pittsburgh (1818–1845), the Trenton bridge across the Delaware (1804–1875), and several bridges in Kentucky. His involvement in C&O bridges and, for a time in 1832, in the construction of Lock 33, is therefore significant.

Brunswick (originally named Berlin) was the location of a major B&O Railroad gravity yard, built to allow the sorting of cars by letting them roll down on a slight slope where changes to the setting of switches would determine onto which track they would be diverted. Repair shops and a roundhouse made this a major railroad center from 1890 well into the 20th century. Today Brunswick is a major commuter station on the MARC line into Washington.

-- Karen Gray


Davies, William E., The Geology and Engineering Structures of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal: An Engineering Geologist’s Descriptions and Drawings (1999). (Page numbers refer to the numbers at the bottom of the pages.)
Gilbert, Dave, Where Industry Failed: Water-Powered Mills at Harpers Ferry West Virginia (1984).
Hahn, Thomas F., Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal (Fifteenth Edition, 1999).
Maynard, Peter, Weverton: A Failed 19th Century Industrial Village (2001).
Moore, Thomas. This report is included as appendix F in Cora Bacon Foster’s The Potomac Route to the West, published in 1912 by the Columbia Historical Society, Press of The New Era Printing Company, Lancaster, PA
Sanderlin, Walter S., The Great National Project: A History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946)

The source of this article is Along the Towpath, Vol. 37, No. 1, March 2005, published by the C&O Canal Association.

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