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 C&O Canal Association

Big Slackwater Restoration Complete

October 17, 2012

bulletRead about the ribbon-cutting ceremony on the Herald-Mail website.
bulletSee Kathy Bilton's video of a bike ride on the restored towpath.
bulletRead the Martinsburg Journal's article on the ribbon cutting.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park held a ribbon cutting ceremony October 13 to celebrate the completed restoration of the towpath area known as Big Slackwater. Public officials, including Senator Ben Cardin, praised the efforts of those who contributed to the project. Park Superintendent Kevin D. Brandt used the occasion to honor the role of the C&O Canal Association in the restoration.

Big Slackwater is a scenic section of the C&O Canal NHP in Washington County, MD, between Inlet Lock No. 4 (mile 85.6) and Lock 42 (mile 88.9). The towpath here historically followed the bank of the Potomac, allowing boats to be towed along a quiet ("slack") part of the river.

Big Slackwater

Senator Ben Cardin at Big Slackwater ribbon-cutting
ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Cardin's office)

Once a popular section of the park, the Big Slackwater area suffered damage from floods in 1972, 1985, and 1996. As a result, NPS closed public access, forcing hikers and bikers to make an unsafe 4.7-mile detour along public roads. This Big Slackwater closure was the only gap in the historic towpath between Georgetown, D.C., and Cumberland, Md.. The detour required hikers and bikers to leave the towpath at Dam No. 4 (mile 84.4) and rejoin it at McMahon's Mill (mile 88.1). The closure also disrupted the continuity of the Great Allegheny Passage that connects Georgetown with the environs of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Restoration has transformed this detour into a scenic highlight along the towpath.  Eight wide, elevated walkways give bikers and hikers expansive views of the river and the cliffs along the river bank.

Big Slackwater had been a top priority for the C&O Canal Association and many other organizations. The association provided critical funding at key points along the tortuous path to restoration.

National Park Service conducted an engineering study of Big Slackwater in the 1990s. The C&O Canal NHP 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, forming   the Big Slackwater Restoration Committee, headed by Tom Perry.

Big Slackwater

Big Slackwater construction (NPS photo)

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. NPS and its contractor had to race the clock on this project, because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act required that all work be complete by September 30, 2012.

In September 2012, as the restoration neared completion, the C&O Canal Association  approved $25,000 for the installation of wayside exhibits.

Big Slackwater

Walkway construction along Big Slackwater (NPS photo)

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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