Crusade Along a Canal

By Lawrence Biemiller

Lander, Md. -- Get George Lewis started talking about the Catoctin Aqueduct and chances are good that he'll tell you a lot more than you bargained for, with a lot more enthusiasm than you expected. He'll talk about George Washington's dream of taming the Potomac River to use as a route to the interior of the continent, and then about the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company's court battle with the upstart Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the 1830s over rights to tight passages alongside the river — "Any lawyer worth his salt was involved," Dr. Lewis says with a grin. He'll tell you about the cholera epidemic that delayed the aqueduct's completion, and about countless floods that battered the stone structure over the decades until finally it collapsed, on October 31, 1973, nearly 50 years after it last carried a canal boat above Catoctin Creek.

George Lewis
George Lewis at the Catoctin Aqueduct

Chances are also good that you'll come away thinking that Dr. Lewis, a semi-retired U.S. Army veterinarian, might actually pull off an audacious $2.3-million plan to rebuild the three-arch aqueduct, and to do so at almost no cost to its cash-strapped owner, the C&O Canal National Historical Park. Projects like this often come to naught, but they don't often have someone like Dr. Lewis behind them.

He's got engineers at work on construction surveys and drawings. His plan has survived an initial review by a key National Park Service committee, and he's got the backing of both Maryland and Frederick County officials. He's established a public charity, the Catoctin Aqueduct Restoration Fund Inc. He has fund-raising brochures, prints of the aqueduct with which to reward donors, and a Web site about the project ( He has a PowerPoint presentation for Rotary Club meetings and some solid ideas about corporations to approach. The project has already received $25,000 from a family foundation in a Washington suburb and another $25,000 from the C&O Canal Association, a group of the park's supporters.

All Dr. Lewis has to do now is raise $1.2-million by next February, so that the project can qualify for a matching grant of federal transportation funds distributed through the State of Maryland. "I'm not good at asking," he says, not entirely convincingly, as he strides up the canal towpath toward the site of the aqueduct. "I'm better at presentations."

Catoctin Aqueduct
The aqueduct's remaining arch

Certainly he's good at showing off what's left of the aqueduct — three-quarters of the eastern arch, plus the structure's two ends, called abutments, and the walls on both sides of the abutments, called wing walls. While most people would focus on the fact that two of the three arches are gone, Dr. Lewis looks on the bright side — counting the abutments and wing walls, 60 percent of the total structure is still in place, he says. Completed in 1834, the 130-foot-long aqueduct had a pair of semicircular arches flanking a much longer elliptical arch. By the 1920s, the elliptical arch had begun to sag, apparently because the pier between it and the west arch had shifted slightly. That gave the aqueduct a distinctive profile that many people found appealing.

Dr. Lewis leads the way down to a creekside vantage point. The surviving arch is shadowed by a World War II-era temporary bridge that the park service bought for $1 and erected here in the late 1970s for hikers, bikers, and other users of the canal's towpath. "This arch looks pretty good on this side," he says. The creek bed, he says, is littered with cut stones that were once part of the aqueduct. He would like to reuse as many of those original stones as possible in the reconstruction.

From the other side, however, the arch looks much worse. The outer wall is missing entirely, and floods — which can carry branches and whole trees — have battered the rest. Tree trunks are lodged against the arch's opening. Dr. Lewis turns to point out the two-arch railroad bridge just a few yards upstream, built at the same time as the aqueduct and still in use. Because of a curve in the creek, the two structures are offset, so that the railroad bridge funnels floodwaters right at the part of the aqueduct that's no longer there.

Catoctin 1959
The aqueduct in 1959 (Jack E. Boucher, HAER)

The Catoctin Aqueduct was one of 11 on the canal, which begins in Washington and was intended to stretch all the way to the Ohio River. But the canal company gave up construction in 1850 at Cumberland, Md., having lost the race westward to the railroads. The canal was a frequent target of Confederate raids during the Civil War, but sustained relatively little damage. It was busy for several decades after the war ended, hauling coal and grain. Boats were pulled by mules that lived in small stables up front; captains and their families lived in cramped cabins in the back.

Time and again, floods took their toll. The 184-mile canal followed the Potomac's course for most of its route, and the river frequently overwhelmed it — it was a flood in 1924 that put the canal out of business for good. Floods on the tributaries that the canal crosses, like Catoctin Creek, caused havoc that was less widespread but no less real. Before the canal closed, the aqueducts were also susceptible to damage from winter weather, which froze and expanded the water that leaked through their stonework (nowadays the canal bed is dry in all but a few places). Only two of the 11 aqueducts, at Antietam Creek and at the Monocacy River, are still completely intact.

But only the Catoctin Aqueduct has collapsed, notes Dr. Lewis, who became interested in the canal after buying a nearby farm 10 years ago. His first project was leading a group that restored a lockkeeper's house half a mile east of the aqueduct. That project introduced him both to the park's current superintendent, Kevin Brandt, and to the park service's rules and procedures. So Dr. Lewis knew what he was getting into when he started talking about rebuilding an aqueduct.

Luckily, he picked up some experience managing big projects and working with bureaucracies during his 30 years in the Army — he was at one point the Pentagon's senior medical biological-defense expert. He has created a timeline for the Catoctin project that, if all goes smoothly, would allow construction to begin two years from now, and would see a ribbon-cutting in the spring of 2009. He has also convened workshops with interested parties to try to anticipate legal and logistical complications before they become actual snags. And he has brought together a group of local fund-raising "graybeards," as he calls them, to look over his plans for coming up with the $1.2-million.

"I said, Here's my program — tear it apart," Dr. Lewis says. "Well, they did a pretty good job." They told him that the project wasn't urgent or sexy — and that many people didn't even know what an aqueduct was. "They said, George, the mountain's about like that," he says, holding his hand at a sharp angle. In a memo after the meeting, he wrote, "Stay the course" and "Accelerate awareness efforts ASAP." He and others have been studying the aqueduct's history, he says, and "all the stuff we've dug up has made the Catoctin tastier and tastier." On a hill beyond the railroad tracks, for instance, a depression marks the site of a Union gun emplacement that guarded the aqueduct and the railroad bridge during the Civil War.

The reconstruction project's lead engineer, Denis J. McMullan, says the plan is to rebuild the aqueduct so that it will look just as it always did, only without the sag in the middle. Two approaches are being considered, he says. One is to rebuild the aqueduct's arches in stone, exactly as they were, but with a hidden reinforced-concrete "saddle" strengthening the elliptical arch — its original design "doesn't calculate out" to modern standards, Mr. McMullen says. The less expensive approach is to build exposed reinforced-concrete arches faced with stone. In either case, he says, the aqueduct "will be stronger when we're finished than it ever was, by a large factor." There is no plan to rewater this part of the canal, but if there ever were, the rebuilt aqueduct would hold water as well as ever.

"Lots of folks are coming forward in the community and saying, 'I want to participate in this,'" says Mr. Brandt, the park's superintendent. He calls Dr. Lewis's project "feasible and reasonable," and he backed the plan strongly when it went before a park-service committee that approves projects involving outside partners. The park service itself has so little money that it can make only a token contribution to the project, although park-service employees like Mr. Brandt have already devoted many hours to helping it along.

Mr. Brandt says that Dr. Lewis, who has paid for most of the project's incidental expenses out of his own pocket, is "a remarkable individual."

"Ten or 15 years ago very few groups would come forward to help the park service in this way," says Mr. Brandt. "This park is real fortunate to have people in the community who will step forward and take this kind of leadership role."

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Published May 4, 2006.