From 1831 to 1924, the C&O Canal moved people and cargo to and from the Washington, D.C., area. Even the stone used to build the Smithsonian Castle along the National Mall arrived by canal boat.
In the 1930s, much-needed restoration work was performed on the canal by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but its troubles weren’t over. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas led a hike in 1954 to call attention to the need to preserve the area and prevent it from being turned into a highway.
In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared it a national monument. And, in 1971, it became a national historic park. Today, the entire 184.5-mile towpath is open to visitors for hiking, biking, and other adventures.
One of those adventures, perfect for families, is taking a ride on the canal in a boat pulled by mules. Canal boat excursions recalling the canal’s 19th-century heydays are available at Great Falls, Md. Visitors can travel on the Charles F. Mercer, a reproduction of the packet boats that once traveled up and down this preserved waterway.
The ride takes you on the historic canal at a mule’s pace and allows you to experience rising and falling 8 feet in a lock. Dressed in period clothing, National Park Service employees tell the tales of what life was like for the families who lived and worked on the canal.
“I recommend arriving 60 to 90 minutes before the ride, as it can be crowded,” said ranger Carl Lenartson.
Public boat excursions are available Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00am, 1:30pm, and 3:00pm. Confirm the boat ride for your visit by calling 301-767-3714, as special circumstances may affect the schedule. The price is $8 for adults (ages 16 to 61), $6 for seniors (ages 62 and older), and $5 for children (ages 4 to 15). Children ages 3 and younger ride free. In addition to the boat fee, there is an entrance fee to the park of $5 per vehicle.
Seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, although groups of 10 or more can make advance reservations. The Charles F. Mercer’s capacity is 60 people. The boat programs last approximately one hour.
The Charles F. Mercer operates from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, 11710 MacArthur Blvd. (nps.gov/choh)