A Professor's Heartfelt Crusade
to Save a C&O Canal Aqueduct

See pictures of the C&O Canal's aqueducts

Read a 2005 article about the stabilization of the aqueduct

By Lawrence Biemiller

Dickerson, Md. -- Carl Linden's big Oldsmobile winds down Mouth of Monocacy Road for several minutes before the parking lot appears, empty except for one other car. He and Gilbert Gude clamber out of the Olds, and once the doors are shut the only sounds are the chirping of the season's last crickets and the rustle of dry leaves in a warm autumn breeze.

"There was a boat basin here," Dr. Linden says, pointing into the trees, "and a little village."

A stone wall rises from a deep pool of leaves and scrub, marking one side of the basin; the foundations of a long-disappeared granary mark another. A broad dirt path curves through the woods, too level to be a hiking trail, too sharply curved to be a railroad right-of-way. Not until the path emerges into a sunny clearing does the trough of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal become obvious beside it. The canal is filled with grass now, instead of water, but its sloping walls hold their shape, conveying the towpath, the eye, and the imagination toward a handsome stone structure just ahead.

It is the Monocacy Aqueduct -- "the largest on the canal, 538 feet from from wing to wing," Dr. Linden says proudly. Seven shallow arches set on heavy piers carry the canal bed above the dark currents of the Monocacy River, which empties into the Potomac just downstream. The aqueduct was constructed between 1829 and 1833, and it remained in use until 1924, when one of the Potomac's periodic floods closed the canal for good. Once counted among Maryland's loveliest attractions -- its likeness was engraved on silver platters depicting the state's "Seven Wonders" -- the sandstone aqueduct has spent the past 20 years awkwardly girdled with steel cables and beams that were part of a "temporary" scheme to stabilize it.

Now Dr. Linden and Mr. Gude are leading a campaign to work out a permanent preservation plan. Both come to the campaign as volunteers who are long-time fans of the canal. Dr. Linden, an amiable Kremlinologist and political-science professor at George Washington University, is a 35-year member and two-time president of the C&O Canal Association, whose volunteers do everything from monitoring towpath conditions to filling sandbags when floods threaten the canal's historic structures. Mr. Gude -- his last name is pronounced GOO-dee -- is a former Congressman from Maryland who helped write the legislation that made the canal a National Historical Park in 1971, and who still bikes regularly along the towpath.

"There are really some no-lose structures that are essential to the canal's continuity as a historical park," Dr. Linden says. He notes that the Catoctin Aqueduct, 10 miles up the canal, collapsed when a flood undermined its piers in 1973; towpath users now cross on a modern footbridge. A tremendous flood this past January submerged the Monocacy Aqueduct entirely, and then another flood, in September, left it littered with tree trunks. Standing on the canal berm, Dr. Linden points out a floating jumble of flood debris jammed up against the aqueduct's middle piers by the river's relentless current.

Certainly the aqueduct seems sound enough to the casual visitor -- after all, it was constructed to shoulder 90-foot barges laden with 130 tons of coal or wheat. Its towpath, built for the mules that pulled the barges, is open to foot traffic. The curious can inspect railings notched by tow ropes, a stone plaque that lists the names of engineers, contractors, and canal-company directors. During the Civil War, Dr. Linden says, "Confederates tried to blow the aqueduct up, but they couldn't drill enough holes into it for their explosives."

Sturdy as it might seem, however, Dr. Linden points out a stone that has slipped down a few inches in the first arch, which appears to sag slightly. The cables and beams were intended to keep the structure from shifting, he says, but at this point no one knows whether they have done their job or were necessary in the first place. The canal association has given the National Park Service $15,000 to pay for an engineering study of the aqueduct, he adds.

Mr. Gude, meanwhile, has been chatting with a woman who has set up an easel along the river downstream from the aqueduct. The painting she is making of it does not include the cables and beams. Mr. Gude and Dr. Linden are quick to tell her about the preservation campaign. One challenge, Dr. Linden admits, is that the aqueduct isn't on one of the more heavily used stretches of the canal. Although it is only 42 miles from the canal's zero milepost -- near the Watergate complex in Washington -- the area around the Monocacy's mouth is relatively undeveloped. Hikers, bikers, and town planners press for canal improvements in populated areas -- above Washington's Georgetown neighborhood and in the Maryland cities of Cumberland and Williamsport, for instance. But the aqueduct is "kind of in a remote spot, so it has no constituency," he says.

The Canal Association hopes to change that, and experience suggests that it may succeed. The group got its start on the final night of a 1954 hike during which Justice William O. Douglas led editorial-page writers from The Washington Post along the entire length of the canal. As Douglas intended, the hike persuaded the paper to change its mind about a park-service plan to pave over the canal and make it a parkway. "It's really like the perils of Pauline that the canal survived," says Mr. Gude.

In fact, he says, the canal's existence has been perilous since July 4, 1828, the day President John Quincy Adams broke ground for it. New York's Erie Canal, a tremendous success as soon as it opened in 1825, had proved that canals could move goods cheaply and turn a profit. The C&O Canal Company had an equally ambitious plan to construct a canal reaching all the way to the Ohio River, but on that same July 4, ground was also broken for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It took a similar route up the Potomac's valley, and it soon outpaced the canal, which was never well capitalized and which suffered all manner of delays. Construction was finally halted in 1850, at Cumberland. The canal was busy and profitable in the 1870s, but a flood in 1889 bankrupted it. Ironically, the B&O took it over -- to prevent competing lines from laying tracks along its right-of-way, Mr. Gude says. The railroad operated the canal until the 1924 flood. Later, Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded the President that the government should buy the property, which it did in 1938.

Now the canal is popular with runners, bikers, hikers, bird watchers, and many others. The towpath, intact along almost all of the canal's length, clings to slopes high above the river's edge in some places; in others it meanders through woods filled with the songs of birds. In several sections, notably between Georgetown and Violettes Lock, at milepost 22, the park service usually keeps the canal watered. Visitors there and elsewhere can marvel at the scope and cleverness of its engineering -- at locks that lift barges from one level to the next, at feeder dams that bring river water into the canal, at overflow spillways that maintain the proper water level, at flumes and culverts and stop locks.

And at aqueducts, of course. What could better symbolize mankind's astonishing capacity for invention than a bridge built to float barges across 500 feet of thin air? Walking out alone onto the aqueduct here -- Dr. Linden and Mr. Gude are chatting with a park ranger in the distance -- you can hear the river gurgling around the stone piers and watch yellow leaves swirl and tumble in eddies and currents. Beside you is a quiet river of grass that the aqueduct now carries, as effortlessly as it once carried the canal itself. Dr. Linden sometimes calls the canal "a magnificent failure," and here, in the middle of the aqueduct, it's easy to see what he means.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published November 15, 1996.