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A Restored Lower C&O Canal - CCA Vision
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Access – A Restored Lower C&O Canal – A CCA Vision    DRAFT   7-18 Dec 2019

Image result for C&O Canal images Georgetown – With water and without the reeds.


Not thirty years ago, most of the lower end of the C&O Canal was open to the public for recreational boating, a wonderful resource that has been slowly slipping away from all of us in the intervening years.   Of late, however, with the refocusing of energy by the C&O National Historic Park it seems that this can be reversed and the Canal restored to its rightful place among the city’s outdoor attractions.


In this time, the CCA has concentrated on parts of this – particularly getting two critical sections rewatered.  But now we should like to take a broader view of the lower Canal as experienced by boaters.  Here is how the CCA envisions a rewatered Canal dedicated to paddlecraft.   We base this on the plan announced by C&O Canal NHP Supt Kevin Brandt in November 2017.  Our vision is focused on the Canal as a waterway, using the towpath only to pass some of the locks and to progress along several short levels that would be uneconomical to restore for minimal paddling – meaning most of the Seven Locks and Six Locks sections.  Since canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards cannot be locked up the Canal, we would pass around the locks by carrying our craft or rolling them on portable wheels.  Many of us remember that all of the reaches we seek to have rewatered have been navigable within the last thirty years. That is – 1990 - is that so?


We also envisage a series of improvements to many cross-canal access points to the Potomac, which we’ve discussed elsewhere.   note 1


The major sections which should be rewatered are:

– from Lock 4/Georgetown up to Lock 10/Cabin John – 4.5 mi

– from Lock 14/Beltway-Carderock to Widewater - 4 mi

– from Lock 16 to 17 above Mary’s Wall – 1/3 mi

– from Great Falls Tavern to Violettes Lock 23 – 7 mi - for a total of just under 16 miles.


The restoration of these sections to boating would allow novices and families with children a safe and beautiful place for multiple outings.  It would also enable several loop trips down the Potomac and back up the Canal.  These too are discussed elsewhere.   note 2


We recognize that several of these sections have the NHP’s attention, especially where they support the operation of canal barges for tourists at Georgetown and Great Falls Tavern.  For us boaters the Park has also refilled the Pennyfield Reach.  


Prospect of Many Paddling Trips


We should like to point to seven point-to-point trips, along with loop trips that should again become possible along the length of the rewatered lower Canal.


A – Levels 4 & 5 (4.8 mi)  The most obvious is the trip along the very bottom rewatered reaches, from Georgetown to the Feeder Canal and up to Lock 6.  It is already heavily used (water fluctuations permitting) by paddlers returning from running Little Falls and by a lone scull.


B – Levels 6 & 7 (2.9 mi.) 1 portage, parking at Locks 6, 7, 8


C – Levels 7 & 8 (2 mi) 2 portages, parking at Locks 7, 8, 10


D – Level 14 – Carderock to Anglers (1.3 mi.) 1 portage


E – Level 14 Loop: Anglers to Highwalls (Mile 11) and back to Widewater (5 mi)


F – Anglers to Lock 17/Sandy Beach Steps (1.5 mi.) 1 portage


G – Great Falls Tavern to Pennyfield (6¾ mi.) 1 portage


H – Pennyfield to Violettes (1.5 mi)


Ways around the Locks for Small Boats – For ease of footing and to avoid damage, in most spots we suggest simple, unobtrusive flagstone steps between the towpath berm and the canal, and in a couple of places wooden sluices down into the waterway.  Where it is possible we favor landing and portaging on the uphill/ lock-house side to keep boats and boaters out of the mix of hikers and bicyclists on the towpath.  At some  we advocate rebuilding the small landing docks of a decade ago (much smaller than the current canal dock at Fletchers Boathouse.)


Current State of the Levels, with Proposals for Small Boats


How do we see these improvements, lock and level by lock and level?  First off, boaters need no further reconstruction of the magnificent locks that in the past year have been entirely rebuilt; our needs are rather more modest.   The following is how we should like to see improvements take place, starting at the bottom.


Georgetown/ Level 4 (4.5 mi) – The NHP already plans to clean out the reeds at the lower end of this reach and raise the water level in Spring 2020.  We suggest a boat put-in on Canal right (river-side), currently an unused small plot on Thomas Jefferson St. ideal for assembling boats and gear, with steps to enter the Canal over a flush stone wall.  Entering off the narrow towpath (uphill side) just up from 31st St Bridge is less ideal.  Take-out at Lock 5, as now, on the uphill side just below the parking lot.


(Succeeding Sections up to the Seven Locks) (3.5 miles) - All are dry, save a few hundred yards just up from Locks 6 and 7.  Towpath in excellent shape.  Levels 6, 7, and 8 are long and scenic; 9 is very short.  A major issue is how to get water to these – a lesser onee is removing ca 15 fallen trees.   Water could enter by coming down from Dam #2 at Violettes through the Seven Locks and from various short streams draining this residential part of Montgomery County.   The larger ones are carried under by culvert; those entering the Canal directly - often contributing to silt-in - are noted below


Related image


Lock 5/ Feeder Canal to Lock 6 (0.3 mi)  Lock 5 holds water, but the level above is very low and stagnant.  This has been up in recent months, though it is not now navigable up to Lock 6.  It is a priority for paddling boats back up to the Lock 6 parking lot after running Little Falls and was possible as recently as 10 years ago.  Landing place as before - behind lock house 6.


Brookmont Level 6 (1.6 mi) - The top Lock-6 gate is rotting, allowing water to leak through. The water level at the lock is navigable, though plant-infested, but shallows out in a half mile.  Needs 2 feet more to fill the reach to Lock 7.  Quiet, as the parkway is uphill and set back.  Passes Brookmont Dam and Sycamore Island.  100 yards up from the Sycamore footbridge a tiny brook issuing from a gap in the uphill cliff has formed a pebble and rock delta blocking the Canal with silting down-canal so the water upstream is 2 feet above that below.  Possible landing behind lock house 7.


Glen Echo Level 7 (1.3 mi) - Lock 7, a drop gate lock, is rotted (see-through) and holds no water.  100 yards above it is a brand new waste weir (no water passes through) evidencing serious NHP intentions for this level - and presumably adjacent ones.  The lower part of this reach is noisy from the nearby parkway and has more downed timber than those parts above and below (see Cabin John Creek aqueduct and blockages at the footbridge just above.)   Landing place behind lock house 8.


Level 8 (0.67 mi) - moist but too low to navigate.  A trickle comes in just up from the lock house, formerly run by the Potomac Conservancy.


Level 9 (0.1 mi) - moist, non-navigable.  Small dry sewer enters the Lock 10 bypass flume.


Level 10 (0.16 mi) - dry, with marsh grass in the prism - restored (2019) Rock Run Culvert is under the upper end.

Locks 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 - the Seven Locks - and their levels – broken, overgrown, impassible.  The last six levels are so short that paddlers won’t use them, portaging directly up to Lock 14.

Lock/Level 14 – (4 miles)  The top of the 7 Locks and head of a long and tempting reach that goes up past Carderock, the fraught High Wall with buried Dulles Sewer, the wide spot (watered), Anglers (currently un-navigable), and Widewater (watered).  This has fascinating possibilities for partial rewatering (details below).


At Level 14’s top end of Widewater, we propose a short portage trail under the wooden towpath-side bicycle/pedestrian ramp and bridge, coming out on the towpath at Lock 15  (Level 15 is a short (0.2 mi) unusable section with steep banks in and out.)

Lock/Level 16 to Sandy Beach Steps – (0.3 mi)  This is the longest level in the Six Locks series around Great Falls.  It runs along Mary’s Wall and ends at Lock 17/Sandy Beach Steps and Trail.  Rewatering this and clearing the Lock 15 portage trail are critical to restoring the paddling loop down Mather Gorge.  Lock 16 has no lock gate left, but it needs only a low (2 foot) wall at its mouth to raise water level sufficiently.  Steps down into the prism at Lock 16, up at Lock 17 are needed.

Locks 17, 18, 19 – These were refurbished in 2019, but their short reaches mean that, as in prior years, paddlers will portage along the towpath around all of them, putting in at Lock 20/ Great Falls Tavern or at Lock 17/Sandy Beach steps. 

Lock 20/ Great Falls Tavern – (2¼ mi)  This level was watered until an early Nov 2019 downpour.  The NHP is working on rewatering it again. Here starts the final 7-mile stretch up three levels to Violettes Lock.  Small steps down into the Canal (towpath side) across from the Tavern are needed.

Swains Lock 21 – This 3 mile level behind an old but efficient lock was partly watered – until the Nov 2019 downpour burst the Swains waste weir.  Boaters would exit and reenter the Canal on lock-house side.
Image result for C&O Canal images


Pennyfield Lock 22 (1½ mi) At the head of the final reach up to Violettes Lock – Lock 22 is newly refurbished and its level is watered but (Dec 2019) too low for boating.  Exit and reenter the Canal opposite the lock-house.

This document is stored on the CCA website at “Access – A Restored C&O Canal”         

Appendix - Partial Rewatering of Level 14  


    This four-mile long section begs for rewatering.  At the top end, raising Widewater by a foot would allow paddling from the access bridge at Anglers both up-Canal and down.   This level is un-watered over half its length for fear of leakage or structure failure at the high masonry retaining wall down to the Potomac called “Highwalls” (Mile 11.1, just up from Carderock).  There the (ca 8-foot diameter) Dulles Sewer buried under the Canal in the 1960s is watched by the NHP for signs of possible catastrophic rupture.  In recent years the NHP has used 2-foot diameter plastic pipe to lead water in Level 14 over a leaky section at Culvert 15 (Mile 10.42) and the underpass entrance to Carderock Park.   This suggests a solution for raising the water level in much of this long reach.


Water Sources - In

– down the Canal entering Widewater at Lock 15

– off the uphill side of the 3½ miles of waterway down to Carderock


Waste Weirs - Out

– at Mile 9.67 – 1/5 mile up from Lock 14 (currently unused as this section is dry)  It has recently (2018) been rehabbed.

– at Mile 13 in the “Log Wall” * portion of the towpath along Widewater – dumps into stream which enters the Potomac at the bottom of Mather Gorge.


At the top end of Highwalls an unnamed but constant trickle/spring comes out of the low left-side cliff, down into the Canal, where it flows both upstream and down.  Above it is the intermittently navigable broad section of the reach; below it the Canal is practically dry down to Lock 14. 


To restore 2½ miles of navigable canal from here up past Marsden and Anglers footbridges through Widewater, a foot-high cofferdam [like the pair over the motor entrance to Carderock Park] could be built at the upstream end of Highwalls.  The water from the spring could be led in a pipe similar to the Carderock Park entrance – upstream-wards.  The 200 yards of canal at Highwalls and downstream from that dam would thus stay dry, relieving pressure on the retaining wall.


To gain another 1½ miles of navigability down to Lock 14, another large plastic pipe could be built downstream-wards from the cliff-spring, releasing into the canal below Highwalls, with another low cofferdam to keep the water from running back up into that no longer moist, but now dried-out section of the Canal. 


  • In some of its literature the NHP has used “Logwall” to designate this part of the Canal at Mile 11 opposite Vaso Island.This place is properly called “Highwalls.”(Hahn, Towpath Guide, p. 36)The term “Logwall” describes the towpath walkway across the outflow from Widewater at Mile 13. (Hahn, p. 38)



Note 1 - Cross-Canal Put-ins:  CCA Website – “River Access” – “CCA Access

               Projects” – “C&O Canal-3 Nov 2017”


Note 2 – Loop Trips: Website – “Message Board” – “10 Possible Loops 1/21/2018”

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