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Big Slackwater Towpath Restoration: Summary and Status in 2011

Restoration of the closed section of the C&O Canal towpath at Big Slackwater is a top priority for the C&O Canal Association and for many other organizations and individuals that support the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The following is an overview of this important project, now under way in Washington County, Maryland.

The Problem: Erosion has caused the National Park Service to close several miles of the towpath, forcing hikers and bikers to make an unsafe 4.7-mile detour along public roads. This Big Slackwater closure is the only gap in the historic towpath between Georgetown, D.C., and Cumberland, Md.. It is also disrupts the continuity of the new trail that connects Georgetown with the environs of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Location: Big Slackwater is a scenic section of the C&O Canal NHP in Washington County, Md., between Dam No. 4 (mile 84.6) and McMahon's Mill (mile 88.1). The towpath here historically followed the bank of the Potomac, allowing boats to be towed along a quiet ("slack") part of the river.

Narrative: Once a popular section of the Park, the Big Slackwater area suffered damage from floods in 1972, 1985, and 1996. As a result, NPS was forced to close public access.

NPS conducted an engineering study of Big Slackwater in the 1990s. The C&O Canal National Historical Park assigned its highest priority to restoring the damaged section. This was reflected in a list of "Unfunded Funding Components" distributed at the January 19, 2007, meeting of the park's advisory commission. The estimated project cost was listed as just over $15 million.

In 2005, the C&O Canal Association began a major effort to support restoration of the Big Slackwater towpath. In August 2006, C&OCA sponsored a boat trip to demonstrate the erosion and the required repairs to federal and state lawmakers, local officials, and the media. The Association continued to advocate the need to reestablish towpath continuity, and raised awareness of this issue by such means as a petition drive by volunteers positioned near the downriver terminus of the detour.

In May 2007, a report by the Secretary of the Interior cited Big Slackwater restoration as an example of accomplishments possible under the proposed Centennial Initiative program to improve the National Park System. C&OCA and others expressed support for the inclusion of Big Slackwater in the Centennial Challenge, the matching grant portion of the Initiative; however, the project was not among those initially selected for the Challenge program.

In August 2007, C&OCA contributed $15,000 as part of matching funds for a grant to support a new engineering study of the Big Slackwater project.

In January 2009, a coalition of organizations and community leaders announced support for Big Slackwater restoration as an issue of the highest priority (see news release in pdf). To help support and Environmental Assessment of the restoration project, C&OCA on March 7 made an initial donation of $25,000 to NPS. On April 2, C&OCA made a second donation in the amount of $40,000 for the Assessment.

In May, 2009, the NPS announced that the C&O Canal NHP would receive $12.1 million for the Big Slackwater project under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Subsequently, NPS held a public meeting on the draft EA on November 19, and accepted written comments on that document through December 14, 2009. Further information is available on the NPS web page concerning the project.

In January 2010, the state of Maryland announced the approval of $4.4 million in federal Transportation Enhancement Program funding for the Big Slackwater project.

On February 12, 2010, NPS issued a notice indicating that it would soon be issuing a solicitation for contractor proposals on the Big Slackwater project. Solicitation closed on April 2. A contract was subsequently awarded, and groundbreaking for the project took place on August 7, 2010, at the Dam 4 Road park access point (see article for details and images of the groundbreaking ceremony.

By early 2011, the contractor had deployed a heavy crane at the site and barges on the river. Vegetation was being removed, and the route of the eroded towpath was being prepared for restoration. The photo below, by Wayne Johnson, shows work being carried out during the winter along the icy Potomac. . . .

Removal of trees and other vegetation from the route of the towpath was completed in January 2011, and the first phase of jet grouting work began in March. The contractor continued to excavate and place concrete for pier footings within the elevated walkway areas. By April 1, NPS was able to report that four pier footings were in place and that the project remained on schedule.

C&OCA salutes all those citizens, officials, and organizations whose work is making possible the restoration and reopening of the C&O Canal towpath in the Big Slackwater area.

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     C & O Canal Association     P.O Box 366      Glen Echo, MD 20812-0366     Phone: 301-983-0825      Email: inquiries@candocanal.org