Unable to wait until she actually arrived in the delivery room, the gathering in Potomac Village last Wednesday cheered, waved and flashed cameras as the "Charles F. Mercer" neared the completion of its final trek from Albany, N.Y., to the C&0 Canal at Great Falls.
Arriving in two sections, the 715-foot, 32,000-pound boat with a 3,000-pound upper deck, was a thing of beauty as the two semis hauling the precious cargo were deftly maneuvered through the crossroads turn. When asked if their trip was uneventful, drivers David Libbey and Peter Plitouke, both Massachusetts natives, replied, "Absolutely. It was 10 hours of smooth sailing the whole way. That’s why they hired us."
The idea of replacing the more than 30-year-old, mule driven, "Canal Clipper," that has hauled canal lovers up and down the narrow waterway near Great Falls Tavern, was reportedly conceived by a group of Seven Locks School elementary students who apparently had a scheduled field trip cancelled when the old boat was deemed unsafe. Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern president, Don Harrison, explained, "They [the students] appeared in the Village one morning collecting funds from passersby for a new boat."
When Friends of the Tavern heard about the students’ effort, they picked up the ball and ran with it, raising over half of the half-million dollar price tag from private donations while the state kicked in $200,000, and Arts and Humanities of Montgomery County ponied up $35,000. "I was in Albany yesterday and gave the company ]Scarno Boat Builders] the balance due — $24,650," Harrison said.
Harrison, who has been president of Friends of the Tavern for four years was almost denied the thrill of seeing its actual arrival in the park. U.S. Park Rangers, who man the Great Falls facility, closed the main gate to prevent traffic from entering. Among those shut out were the "Godparents" escorting their baby from the village to its final destination. "But, it’s our boat!" Friends of the Tavern past president Elie P. Cain successfully pleaded. She was right. The title to the "Charles F. Mercer" had yet to be transferred to the Park Service. (Official Christening rites are Sept. 9, followed by public access on Sept. 10.)
Meanwhile, those already in the park anticipating the arrival included Ken Rollins, 86, a former president of the C&0 Canal Association. An avid canal enthusiast, Rollins recalled adventures with the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a strong advocate of preserving the canal and its environs.
"We [the canal association] grew out of the Douglas hike of 1954. It was planned as a challenge to get the press out to see the beauty of the canal. The opposition wanted to build a scenic road from Cumberland to Washington," he explained.
Douglas’s well publicized effort to save the canal and its environs 52 years ago was spread over every newspaper in the area. The "opposition" lost and the canal’s towpath remains to this day a popular area for hikers, cyclists and equestrians.
"Then we had to fight the Corps of Engineers. They wanted to put main stream dams on the Potomac River," Rollins said. He recalled Douglas, saying at the time, "The engineers are like little boys. When they see a stream they want to build a dam. We pay farmers not to plant crops, we should pay engineers not to build dams."
When asked if he recalled a humorous incident concerning Douglas and others accompanying him on a long hike one day. Rollins, said he was there and knows the story well.
"We started at Seneca and hiked all the way to Old Anglers Inn. I was in their parking lot across the road eating a sandwich, as was Justice Douglas. He looked at his sandwich and remarked as to how a cold beer would do well with it. He went across the road and downstairs to the bar, got his beer and came back. Meanwhile Senator [Paul] Douglas and Udall [then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall] also decided a cold beer would taste good," Rollins recalled.
What the latter two men did not realize was that Justice Douglas returned to the parking lot with his refreshment. "They didn’t see him come back, from the inn," Rollins said.
As the story goes, the Secretary and the Senator purchased their beers and seated themselves at the downstairs bar. When the proprietress heard there were a couple of muddy, sweaty hikers in her bar, she ran down the steps and ordered them out. When told who they were, she proclaimed, "I don’t give a damn who you are, get out!" Chuckling, Rollins calculated the incident took place in the early ’60s. (Out of respect for the deceased, this reporter who recalls the incident pretty much the same as Rollins recollected, will omit the name of the feisty proprietress.)
MANY ANECDOTES, human interest stories and historic facts have surounded the canal since President John Quincy Adams, on July 4, 1828, broke ground near Georgetown. The arrival of the "Charles F. Mercer" is now included among them.
A thing of beauty, the boat is made from Port Orford Cedar except for her aluminum hull. The wood is indigenous to the northwest United States, according to Ted Cain who "visited" the boat in Albany when it was under construction. Mercer, a congressman from Virginia and first president (1828) of the C&0 Canal Co., would surely be pleased to see his name painted across the stern of such fine workmanship.
Started by a group of elementary school students, followed by Friends of the Tavern member Jo Reynolds who spearheaded the fundraising effort, followed by dozens of generous volunteer hours and many financial donors, there will now be a 21st century canal boat, that will comfortably seat 70 passengers, pulled by mules, and to be enjoyed by many, for years to come.
However, as Elie Cain pointed out, additional funds are still needed. "For instance, insurance will be a big expense," she advised. Harrison mentioned the final installation of the handicap lift must also be completed.
On Sept. 28, The Surrey in Potomac Village, will give a wine and cheese party to benefit the boat. The public is invited to the 6-8 p.m. event from which twenty percent of all sales (saddles and consignment items excluded) will be donated.
As for the old "Canal Clipper," her days are numbered. As she was hoisted by crane from her dry dock perch, U.S. Park ranger Barbara Collins replied, when questioned as to the boat’s future, "She will be demolished."
Friends of the Tavern member Elie Cain hopes not. "I think it would make a wonderful living history lesson. We could restore it, put it in the center of the park and let children see how people lived on a double-decker canal boat in the 19th century."
Just perhaps the "Clipper" is not quite yet headed for the old boat's rest home in the sky.