- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

Mule power helps put into perspective how far the United States has come.

At the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Potomac, visitors can see just how difficult it was to travel less than 200 miles, from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown.

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There were, of course, no cars and no highway during the C&O Canal's heyday in the late 1800s. There were just the Potomac River, the canal boats, the mules and the lock keeper. On one recent, sweltering summer day, 40 rising first-graders from a day camp were trying to grasp what the world was like without minivans and FedEx.

Park Ranger Susan Whitcraft, dressed in 1876 clothing, told the children how hard families had to work to keep the canal in operation. The men helped guide the boats, the women did the cooking, and the children had to clean up after the mules.

"The mules could go 30 miles a day on grain and hay," Ms. Whitcraft said, "and they worked in all kinds of weather. They were very economical."

The Canal Clipper, a replica of a 19th-century canal boat, leaves shore several times daily for an hourlong history lesson, traveling just far enough to show how long it took to get down the Potomac. Visitors board the boat at Great Falls Tavern, a building that served as an inn for canal travelers.

The rangers give a quick talk about the masonry involved in building a lock as well as how a lock works. The 90-foot boat enters the lock, and the water level is increased so the boat rises eight feet. The boat then travels a bit down the canal while the rangers talk about mule power, the canal's effect on business, how the families lived in tiny cabins onboard and how the owners of the canal recruited European workers to emigrate to the United States.

The C&O Canal was built in 1828 as a transportation route between Cumberland and Georgetown. The 184-mile canal was called "the great national project" by President John Quincy Adams, who envisioned it as a major thoroughfare for moving goods such as timber and fabric from west to east. The canal was planned to run 460 miles, but money and labor problems, along with the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, made the project somewhat of a disappointment.

The canal, which contained 74 locks, took 50 years to make a profit, and by then the railroad had become the preferred means of transportation. The canal stopped operating in 1924.

There were plans in the 1950s to turn the canal route into a highway. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a fight to save the canal, though, and today the towpath and the historical sites are maintained by the National Park Service.

In addition to the Canal Clipper, there is a historical canal boat ride in Georgetown. Other stretches of the towpath welcome joggers, hikers, bicyclists and visitors just enjoying the view of the Potomac.

Great Falls Tavern is also a popular spot at the park in Potomac. The building, also known as the Crommelin House after the family that used to own it, opened in 1831 as a spot for travelers. At Crommelin House, travelers on the canal or those just taking a country weekend away from Washington could get a meal and a drink and stay in one of the dorm-style rooms upstairs.

The cost of lodging was 25 cents a night. Men and women were permitted to stay together only in the honeymoon suite, Ms. Whitcraft said. The honeymoon suite available only if travelers could prove they were married cost 50 cents.

Crommelin House remains open to visitors while the outside of the structure undergoes its first renovation in 50 years. Inside, it contains exhibits on the history of the building as well as on the history of the canal.

Among the most interesting information to be seen here: a silent film of mules loading onto a canal boat (circa the early 1900s), a chronicle of the 19 floods that have plagued the area (including a big one in 1996) and a short history of gold mining in the area. From 1867 to 1951, Montgomery County mines produced $164,673 worth of gold, the exhibit points out.

The building also houses several historical rooms that show how Great Falls Tavern might have looked in its prime.

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