Georgetown Divorce: Park Service Details $12.7M Canal Plan, Drops Georgetown Heritage

Sometimes, you never see a divorce coming. The following is just such a story between a federal agency and a community nonprofit.

Tomorrow, the National Park Service will begin its $12.7 million preservation and rehabilitation work on the C&O Canal called the Locks and Walls Project. 

Meanwhile, the Park Service abruptly informed Georgetown Heritage — a local nonprofit whose “mission is to restore and revitalize the national parks in Georgetown, beginning with the first mile of the historic C&O Canal that runs through Georgetown” — that it is ending its partnership with the community group.

On March 1, Georgetown Heritage Chair and President Jennifer Romm told supporters: “I am writing to inform you that on February 28, 2024, the Superintendent of the C&O Canal Historical Park terminated Georgetown Heritage’s philanthropic partnership agreement with the National Park Service with a 60-day notice. We are shocked and disheartened that they never discussed this possibility with us before making their decision. Nor  Nor did they consult with the District of Columbia Government which has invested nearly $7 million in this project. 

“The termination letter cites irreconcilable differences between NPS and Georgetown Heritage as the primary reason for their action. We respectfully disagree. Georgetown Heritage and NPS jointly developed a conceptual revitalization plan with an agreed-upon vision and goals informed by extensive city and community input and approved by the Old Georgetown Board/Commission on Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission.

“It is clear, however, that the current park Superintendent and regional leadership no longer share the vision or commitment to revitalizing the Georgetown section of the C&O Canal that were developed with their immediate predecessors. We believe this sets a terrible precedent for the way a federal agency deals with the citizens and government of the District of Columbia. We remain committed to the vision and goals in the NPS-approved Environmental Assessment, and to seeing them implemented for the benefit of the citizens of Georgetown, the District, and the Nation. …

“…  The Georgetown Heritage Board of Directors will be meeting with city leaders, community supporters and our member of Congress to discuss this NPS action in the coming weeks as we decide how to best respond.”

Founded in 2014, Georgetown Heritage has raised more than $10 million to improve the canal, the area around it and launched a new replica canal boat.

Georgetown Heritage Executive Vice President Maggie Downing told The Georgetowner today: “We at Georgetown Heritage are still reeling from last week’s decision by the National Park Service, and we are having conversations internally about our next steps. What is clear is that we are still committed to the shared vision and goals for the C&O Canal that we developed in partnership with the National Park Service and that so many members of the community supported. We started this organization to improve the Canal in Georgetown, and we still hope to see the NPS-approved plan implemented.”

The Georgetowner requested and received this comment from NPS’s Christiana Hanson, Chief of Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers for the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

“On February 28, 2024, the National Park Service (NPS) notified Georgetown Heritage of the termination of its philanthropic partnership agreement effective April 29, 2024. While this philanthropic agreement is ending, the NPS remains firmly committed to our mission in Georgetown and all along the canal’s 184.5 miles. The NPS will begin a $12.7 million NPS-funded project in Georgetown in the coming weeks.

“The philanthropic agreement with Georgetown Heritage, signed in 2019 with the goal of enhancing rehabilitation efforts, environmental and historic education, and community engagement along a 1-mile stretch of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Rock Creek Park in Georgetown, has been severed because of fundamental differences in the vision and values between the NPS and Georgetown Heritage.

“Terminating the philanthropic agreement with Georgetown Heritage means that Georgetown Heritage’s activities intended to generate philanthropic support for the NPS including fundraising events, donor cultivation, and electronic giving will halt. In 2019, the National Park Service in partnership with the District of Columbia Government and Georgetown Heritage secured $1.5 million from the Office of the District of Columbia Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to bring a canal boat back to Georgetown. A separate agreement between NPS and Georgetown Heritage covers the canal boat and related interpretive operations. This agreement remains intact.

“As we move forward, the NPS will expand its work in Georgetown with longstanding park philanthropic partner C&O Canal Trust and will continue to foster partnerships with organizations that share similar missions, values, and goals. The NPS remains steadfast in its dedication to the American people, ensuring that their national parks continue to be places of wonder, education, and inspiration.”

Below is what the NPS writes about its “large-scale preservation project will protect key parts of our country’s early transportation history; reduce risk of flooding” in an email sent this morning.

The National Park Service will carry out a large-scale $12.7 million preservation and rehabilitation project on the historic C&O Canal in Georgetown to protect key parts of our country’s early transportation history and reduce the risk of flooding during storms and high-water events. The project is expected to start mid-March and is anticipated to continue through Winter 2026, weather dependent. Construction activities will likely require intermittent towpath detours in Georgetown.

The NPS-funded project will focus on historic canal features including Inlet Lock 1, which diverts water from the Potomac River to the five-mile-section of the canal in Georgetown; Locks 1, 2 and 5; and the canal walls at Level 4. The project will:

  • Stabilize canal structures including the historic stone walls in Georgetown.
  • Increase the resilience of the historic locks and towpath against flooding and other climate associated hazards.
  • Repair water structures, from the lift locks to the feeder channel, to regain watertightness.

This project continues the NPS’s work to preserve the canal and provide authentic, active places for people to enjoy now and in the future. Each of the canal structures being repaired – from the feeder channel to the various locks – have a critical role in water operations. This rehabilitation makes it possible to maintain the watered canal and towpath visitors use to explore this part of the park.

Visitors will see preparations starting on March 5. During construction, portions of the towpath in Georgetown between 34th St. NW and Rock Creek Parkway may be closed with temporary detours through adjacent streets and alleys. Most of the temporary detours are 0.3 miles or less in added distance. Visitors are asked to obey all signs and flaggers and use caution around work areas. The Lock 5 parking lot will be closed during the entire rehabilitation project. Parking and towpath access will remain available at Lock 6, located 0.3 miles from Lock 5.

Water in the canal will remain lowered throughout this project. Each fall, the NPS drains the water from the canal to prevent damage to the masonry walls caused by ice and freeze/thaw cycles. Water will be channeled back into the canal when construction is complete and there is no risk of freezing.

Learn more about this project on the park website at

Georgetown detour map. Courtesy NPS.


One comment on “Georgetown Divorce: Park Service Details $12.7M Canal Plan, Drops Georgetown Heritage”

  • Marco says:

    This does seem like a rather cold “final decree” from NPS, sort of like they used Georgetown Heritage for what it could get out of them (i.e. money) and then tossed them aside.

    As someone who lives along the Canal, and who has experienced how poorly NPS maintained it — always pleading budget problems — and how its horse patrol left horse poop that was never cleaned up, I am concerned how this major project will be handled. If any heavy machinery, material shipping and storage, digging or excavation is involved, in fact if literally any heavy lifting is involved, then I hope NPR will conduct a thorough pre-construction condition survey and document the water run-off, walls and foundations of the residential buildings along the Canal.

    Every time there are heavy rains, there is extensive ponding on the upper brick walkway. The Canal walls and the Canal itself shift with the changing seasons and freeze/melt and wet(full) / dry(emptied) cycles. As a condominium owner, I would not want rumbling machinery, stacked heavy materials, drilling, and excavating to damage our building’s foundation and walls through constant vibrations and thuds.

    I would like to give the NPS the benefit of the doubt, but previous experience says “beware.”

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