DICKERSON – The Monocacy Aqueduct withstood attacks by Confederate troops during the Civil War.
For 100 years it supported tons of cargo that passed over it in 90-foot, mule-drawn boats on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. With its seven shallow arches spanning 538 feet, the aqueduct was the “masterpiece of the canal system.”
But for the past 20 years the quartzite structure has been corseted with steel beams as it struggles to survive the pull of the river below it.
“It is very easy that with another big storm, like the one in 1996, it could be gone,” said Gordon Gay, chief of visitor services for the C&O National Historical Park.
“If we do nothing, it will definitely be destroyed over time,” he said.
The National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the non-profit C&O Canal Association are raising money to study and stabilize the aqueduct and restore it to its original condition – a project that could cost $8 million.
But fund raising is a challenge for the aqueduct, referred to by its supporters as “an orphan on the canal.”
“It is in a remote spot where there is no constituency to support it,” said Carl Linden, two-time president and 35-year member of the canal association.
The crippled aqueduct, whose handcrafted iron railings are rusted over and its pink-and-white quartzite blocks are cracking and stained from weathering, is 42 miles from the canal’s start near the Watergate complex in Washington.
For Minny Pohlmann, a Dickerson resident, the efforts are late in coming.
“It has taken me 25 years to get this kind of enthusiasm,” she said.
“It won’t go down before I do. It is something that I feel is a must in life.”
The construction of the C&O Canal was part of a plan, envisioned by George Washington in 1754, to link the East Coast to the frontier. In 1828, the C&O Canal Co. was organized to build a canal 360 miles from Georgetown, on the Potomac River, to Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River.
At the same time, construction began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which followed the same route up the Potomac River valley and would eventually surpass and doom the canal. But not before construction began in 1829 on the Monocacy Aqueduct, the most elaborate and longest of the 11 built on the C&O Canal.
Quartzite was quarried from nearby Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County and brought the four miles to the river by horse-drawn carts on wooden rails built especially for the project.
“It is an engineering marvel,” said Park Superintendent Doug Faris. “They brought the stone down piece by piece and assembled it all by hand.”
Faris said that it would take a stonesmason an entire day to work a square foot of stone surface.
After three years and two contractors, the aqueduct over the Monocacy – the largest of the rivers intersecting the canal – was finished.
The canal was carried along the top of the 25-foot wide aqueduct. During the 1870s, over 500 boats worked the canal, which never made it past Cumberland.
A typical boat was 92 feet long and 14 feet 6 inches wide and carried 110 to 120 tons of cargo that included coal, grain and lumber. The peak year of operation for the canal was 1875 with 973,805 tons of cargo transported.
Two to three mules pulled the boats and another one or two could rest in their own cabin aboard the front of the boat. The boat captain and his family, or the crew, lived aboard the back of the boat in a 9-by-12-foot cabin.
“My neighbor used to send his wheat down to Washington on those canal boats,” Pohlmann said.
The canal, which cost $14 million to build, was sold by the railroad to the U.S. government for $4 million in 1938.
Plans in the 1950s to turn the canal into a parkway were beaten back and, in 1961 the canal was proclaimed a national monument. In 1971, the C&O Canal National Historical Park was created.
A year later, Tropical Storm Agnes caused enough damage to the aqueduct that the park service installed the current support system of 44 steel beams running up the sides of the aqueduct. Cables holding the two sides together cross the grassy bed of the canal that was once filled with water.
In 1995, the park service hired Bureau of Reclamation divers to hand-inspect the piers and foundations of the aqueduct. They found that the river had eroded the base of the structure, and water was seeping into the piers and hollowing them.
“There is water coming through it, and it is kind of like a sieve that has not been repointed for years,” Gay said.
During last year’s floods, the aqueduct was submerged by high flood waters and hit by trees that were washed down toward the Potomac River.
Congress allocated $23.6 million for canal repairs after the 1996 floods, and $150,000 was spent to remove debris that had accumulated along the upstream side of the aqueduct.
Now, two longer term studies are underway. Several months ago, the park service allocated $120,000 for an engineering study to find out the condition of the aqueduct and the cost for repairs.
The American Society of Civil Engineers is installing an electronic monitoring system that will alert the park service if there is any movement in the aqueduct.
And the C&O Canal Association, a 43-year-old organization heading the “Uphold the Monocacy Drive,” is campaigning and raising money for the structure’s restoration.
The group has raised $50,000 from its 1,300 members, which has been put aside until the park service identifies the aqueduct’s most urgent needs. The group will also apply for foundation grants and will lobby Congress for funds — Sens. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and John Warner, R-Va., are honorary members of the drive.
“We became the lobbying group for the aqueduct,” said Carl Linden. “Part of our strategy is to show that their is public support for it.”
More attention is spent on canal reparations around more populated areas like Georgetown, Williamsport and Cumberland, Linden said. But without the aqueduct, hikers and bikers would not be able to cross the Monocacy River without getting wet.
“It has historical significance on one hand,” Linden said, “but physically it is the canal and towpath carried above the river and if you lose it … it would break the canal in two.”
If the aqueduct collapsed a modern bridge would have to be erected, such as the military bridge that replaced the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct 10 miles upstream, Faris said. That could cost as much as it would cost to fix the aqueduct, he said.
Faris said that the first work that needs to be done is to stabilize the piers below the water, which could cost about $100,000 for each of the seven piers.
“If we get a million dollars we can spend that very effectively,” Faris said.
For the aqueduct’s supporters, the reparations cannot be made too soon and the benefits would be priceless.
“It is serenity and peace of mind,” Pohlmann said. “It gives you almost a spiritual feeling.”