New C&O Canal Boat to Help Revitalize Georgetown   


Upon its April 28 christening to much fanfare – with Mayor Bowser presiding – Georgetown’s new C&O Canal Boat, the “Georgetown Heritage,” launched a new era of local historical and cultural restoration, while providing a boost to Georgetown’s commercial vibrancy.  

By re-awakening its cherished past as the starting point of one of the nation’s first interstate canal systems, Georgetown is charting its course toward a more dynamic future.   

Mayor Bowser presides over launching of “The Georgetown Heritage” on April 28 at the Mule Yard. Photo by Chris Jones.

Opened in 1831, and stretching 184.5 miles from Georgetown, D.C. through the Allegheny mountains to Cumberland, Maryland, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal operated for nearly 100 years as a link to what was then the western United States, delivering resources between the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, using 74 lift locks to raise boats over 600 feet by its terminus. While many parts of the canal have fallen into disrepair over the years, local boosters and preservationists have envisioned the tremendous opportunities canal restoration projects can provide to enhance the livability of the city’s oldest neighborhood.  

The Georgetowner asked Jennifer Romm, President of Georgetown Heritage – the nonprofit leading the way in Georgetown’s canal restoration projects – about how the new canal boat, funded at a cost of $1.5 million, will help revitalize the neighborhood. “It’s more than just the boat – what we’re hoping to do. The boat is just our calling card,” Romm, a longtime resident of Georgetown’s canal neighborhood said. “People will see we’ve done a lot already in the last 6 years or so. [Canal] locks have been repaired, walls have been shored up, water is back in the canal for the season and the canal boat tours are full. People are flocking back to Georgetown and they’re coming to do unique, special experiences in Washington. In the last few weeks, we’ve noticed people coming to Georgetown to take the boat tour and then go have lunch and maybe go shopping.”   

 

(Left-to-right) President of Georgetown Heritage Jennifer Romm, Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto, Mayor Muriel Bowser, National Park Superintendent Tina Cappetta and Maggie Downing of Georgetown Heritage serve as “christening maidens” for “The Georgetown Heritage,” on April 28 at the Mule Yard. Photo by Chris Jones.

 

Restoration of the towpath along the canal will also help boost Georgetown’s vibrancy. “We hope to enliven the rest of the canal in Georgetown’s one-mile section, and make it more accessible so that the towpath is more [smooth and] even and everybody can enjoy it…. And maybe they’ll choose to stay and live in Georgetown or have lunch or shop [here]. We’re going to have a lot of opportunities for people to enjoy the National Park treasure that’s right in our backyard,” Romm added.   

Canal restoration projects will also provide a public service to the neighborhood and the city. A new Visitors Center – The Georgetown Heritage Center – will be constructed in the canal’s Mule Yard located at the .4 mile mark of the canal towpath near 30th St. NW. “We’re hoping to build an education center there which will be a space in which the community can gather and have ANC or CAG meetings or a big community group meeting, or a book sale, or whatever the community needs,” Romm said. “We’ll include classroom space for the kids who are coming to Georgetown to do [field trips] here.”   

Working closely with the city, Georgetown Heritage plans to provide educational field trips as a “cornerstone program” for every 3rd grader in the D.C. Public School system to learn about the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) aspects of the canal and its historical and cultural significance. “There will be educational opportunities where we can have canal relics and display boards to show the canal’s history so people can actually study what’s going on with the canal and Georgetown,” Romm said. “We’re hopeful that in the next 5 years, the Visitors Center will be up and running and a huge success for the community and the city as a whole.”   

By immersing so many young students across the District in Georgetown’s deep historical past, neighborhood vitality is bound to increase. “I think having these kids come here who maybe haven’t heard of Georgetown and having them bring their families…. They’ll visit and be excited and want to learn more. And, they’ll keep coming back. Maybe they’ll move here. Maybe they’ll open their business or go to school here. Show them how great [Georgetown] is and get them excited about it — and they’ll learn something too.”  

With the new canal boat launched, businesses have been stepping up to sponsor Georgetown Heritage’s efforts. Romm said TD Bank and Il Canili restaurant recently signed on as sponsors. Georgetown Heritage has also been in talks with the Rosewood Hotel and The Four Seasons about some “creative joint projects” they could do.   

The President of the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), Joe Sternlieb, also sees the commercial and public service aspects of canal restoration combining to help boost vibrancy. The canal programs will have “a very long tail of benefits,” Sternlieb said. “Our hope is that [canal boat excursions] will be part of a daylong or a weeklong experience where it causes people to spend more time in Georgetown – lingering here, doing more activities here, and spending more money here. And that’s the virtuous cycle we’re trying to create and support.”  

As part of its long-term planning 8 years ago, the BID adopted its Georgetown 2028 plan envisioning the restoration of Georgetown’s C&O Canal section and the launching of a new canal boat as central to boosting Georgetown as a lively destination. “Much of placemaking – the activity of intentionally creating places people want to be – is about creating happy experiences and good memories,” Sternlieb said. “And we have this unbelievably unique ability in Georgetown to create unique and memorable experiences around the canal.”  

Surveys of Georgetown residents revealed a nostalgic longing for the canal boat rides in Georgetown offered over a decade ago by the National Park Service. With the new canal boat in the water, Sternlieb has seen the same sort of happiness that he and others remember from the earlier canal tour days. “Every time the boat moves through the public environment, somebody is walking across a bridge, or sitting in the plaza, or just walking along the canal and they stop and wave and smile. It creates this happiness around the event.”   

“We’re just extremely excited about what a positive and immediate impact [the new canal boat program] is already having and we’re a little surprised that it has taken off as quickly as it has. If ridership maintains where it is right now, we’ll have twice as many riders this year as we had originally projected.” With revenues exceeding expectations, new canal boat staff are being hired.  

Sternlieb is pleased with the success of the canal restoration fundraising efforts thus far. “Georgetown Heritage has been doing a great job… and the BID has been extremely supportive financially in the effort and will continue to be because we think it’s a good thing for Georgetown and for the business community.”   

The National Park Service also has a $28 million budget to conduct deferred maintenance on the canal, Sternlieb said, providing new inter-modal transportation opportunities. In addition to towpath leveling, plans are in the works to install a kayak and canoe dock west of 33rd Street NW “where people would be able to kayak or canoe to the west, maybe to Fletcher’s Boathouse and then take a Capital Bikeshare back and vice versa.”   

Ward-2 Council member Brooke Pinto who helped the mayor christen the new “Georgetown Heritage” canal boat on April 28 also envisions tremendous benefits. “I am so optimistic about the future of Georgetown and I think having the canal boat back in the water and that tours have begun is a real testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together…” Pinto said.    

“I’m really enthusiastic for the build-out of a Georgetown Visitors Center,” Pinto said. “And we put $375,000 from the budget last year to support plans for that. And we think that’s going to be really great for Georgetown residents, for Georgetown University, and for visitors and businesses.” Pinto is also proud to have helped win a 2021 city budget allocation of $500,000 for canal restoration “in partnership with Georgetown Heritage and the BID.”   

In addition to cultural enrichment and business enhancement, Pinto also sees canal restoration as an environmental necessity for wetlands and watershed management.  

With the success of canal restoration projects thus far, Georgetown Heritage and the National Park Service are proposing innovative and creative development plans for the years to come. They’ve hired James Corner Field Operations, the cutting-edge urban park revitalization outfit responsible for transforming an old rail line on the west side of Manhattan to one of the city’s premier outdoor tourist destinations – The High Line trail – elevated and artistically embellished above the bustling streetscape.   

While the plans have not yet received funding, they envision enhanced decks, platforms and spaces for “gongoozling,” or the act of canal gazing, and a “market plaza” area between Wisconsin Avenue and Potomac Street NW as well as a “cantilevered overlook platform” atop the Potomac (or Alexandria) Aqueduct just upstream from Key Bridge. According to DCist’s Edward Russell, they would be designed to create an “eye-catching view of the locks.”   

“Every time the boat moves through the public environment, somebody is walking across a bridge, or sitting in the plaza, or just walking along the canal and they stop and wave and smile. It creates this happiness around the event,”  said Joe Sternlieb of the Georgetown BID. Photo courtesy Georgetown BID.

At Mile Marker “0” of the canal – at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River – a bridge to the Rock Creek Park Trail and a terrace feature, as well as viewing platforms and added trees and vegetation are contemplated. A bike bridge off K Street and additional boat storage facilities as well as “tide lock nets” allowing people to recline as if on hammocks above the water are also envisioned.   

One of the more colorful characters in the whole canal boat operation is “Captain Bob” Solomon, operations manager and boat captain for the “Georgetown Heritage.” For over 55 years, Solomon, a professional engineer, has served as a licensed commercial captain in the D.C. area, having commanded vessels such as the Pirate Boat, DC Ducks, delivery boats, paddle boat operators – you name it. He sees Georgetown’s new canal boat as a boon to businesses and tourism. “This is big time. We need something like this. Tourism is what drives the money and [the passengers] spend a lot of money, especially in Georgetown… I’ve done a lot of these boat tours and they bring in a lot of money.”  

D.C. Tourist Mubarik Ibrahim had just arrived by plane from London when his brother-in-law suggested a ride aboard Georgetown’s new canal boat. Ibrahim enjoyed the one-hour excursion. “It’s pretty cool. There’s lots of history, loads of information that’s interesting and eye-opening and it’s a nice little short trip — and a nice day out, really.”  

For more information about the new canal boat, “The Georgetown Heritage,” see here

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