After breakfast at the Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport, a tiny quaint town with well-kept buildings, we were fueled for the day ahead not that we thought it would be a strenuous one. After all, we were told it would be 27 miles from Williamsport to Shepherdstown. And it was along the trail. How tough could it be?
Unlike the past few days, we couldn't have asked for better weather. The sky was a deep blue with strokes of high white clouds painting our view. It was brisk, but we had no doubt that it would change once we got on the road.
Before we hit the trail, we spent a bit of time at the National Park Services (NPS) museum in Williamsport in the Cushwa Warehouse located at the Cushwa basin. Williamsport was a key midpoint of the canal as it was the only location that provided a place where a barge could be easily turned around. The museum contains some of the things concerning the C&O canal that you would expect--pictures, artifacts, etc.--but it also has a 1917 film made by Thomas Edison called, "Down the Old Potomac," that you would not. It showed the journey of a single boat by mule (the primary beast of burden on the C&O) down that C&O canal. Sections of the canal on film were eerily similar to those that we had just travelled down, especially the muddy towpath.
Though I expected it, we were told by the NPS guide that the canal barges were tightly regulated to ensure that two could pass each other on the canal as well as not get stuck, confirming a suspicion of mine.
The NPS guide was extremely helpful and, ironically, related to the family that built this building sometime between 1790 and 1810. Kurt Cushwa told us that the building predates the canal by over 20 years and was part of the business of one side of his family, which purchased the building in 1880. He elaborated on the flood danger of the area and how things have changed with the creation and disuse of the canal.
We head down to the river noticing that the Conococheague aqueduct center passage is clogged with debris from upstream. It doesn't seem to bother the family of geese that makes its way toward the Potomac using an alternate passage.
Traveling down canal the last few days, there have been interspersed reminders of the role the canal played in the Civil War. Today, as we look forward to visiting the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, we suspect that this will become more obvious on our ride. The day is warming, time to remove layers.
And before we even hop on our bikes, we spot and read the trail signs about the roll of Williamsport during the Gettysburg campaign and how the Confederate Army attempted to disrupt canal operations by sabotaging the aqueduct. Ted is fascinated by the history and lingers taking in the views and contemplating. Time to ride.
As we travel down the canal, we notice that this section has been refurbished with a working lock, number 44, allowing people to take a ride in a replica barge on the canal. We finally get to see the mechanism of how the canal opens and closes. It is remarkable that wooden doors can be so water tight and hold back a huge amount of water. It is as it was nearly 200 years ago. Looking at the repaired lock I can almost see the mules of the past plying their way along the canal moving goods before the railroads took that job away from them.