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Washington Area Rallies Behind Flood-Ravaged C&O Canal

February 15, 1996

POTOMAC, Md. (AP) _ There’s nothing very modern about the C&O Canal Historical Park. No tennis courts. No huge picnic shelters. Not even a seesaw for the kids. Just a 184.5-mile towpath with a canal on one side and the Potomac River on the other.

Maybe that’s why everybody wants to save it.

``It’s natural, like a park should be,″ said Michael Minker, who works at the Old Anglers Inn, a 136-year-old restaurant that overlooks a stretch of the towpath some five miles northwest of Washington. ``Some of these parks these days look like prison facilities.″

True, the C&O isn’t a prison _ it’s actually a prisoner, one with no escape from floods such as those last month that caused $20 million damage and forced the entire park to close.

Not much more than a stone’s throw from the Old Anglers is leftover evidence of the awesome force of nature, a 100-foot chasm created by rushing torrents that obliterated both the canal wall and a concrete abutment set up after Hurricane Agnes came through more than 20 years ago.

``It’s even worse that I anticipated,″ park Superintendent Douglas Faris said.

The canal, built as a passageway to the Midwest during the exploration-minded 1800s, runs from the uppercrust Washington neighborhood of Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., and at one point becomes a part of the Appalachian Trail. It’s used by walkers, joggers, dog-walkers, rollerbladers, canoeists and nature-lovers in general, but its proximity to affluent areas such as Georgetown and Potomac make it an especially popular stroll for the well-to-do.

``We’ve got a lot of million-dollar dogs around here,″ ranger Craig Foutz said. ``There were some sad owners when I had to turn them away because the park was closed.″

Officials are now hoping those dog owners will help rebuild the canal. Small stretches have reopened since the flooding, but most of the towpath is in bad shape: Bridges are shredded like match sticks; a two-story house used by rangers at the Paw Paw Tunnel was been moved off its foundations; the popular boat rides offered at Great Falls won’t take place this summer; the section that joins the Appalachian Trail at the Shenandoah River is ``400 yards of total destruction,″ according to information officer Gordon Gay.

In the past, Congress has footed most of the bill when the floods wrecked the canal and towpath. Not this time.

``I knew the minute I saw it we’re going to have to do it differently this time,″ Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said. ``There isn’t that kind of money (in Congress).″

Babbitt, a regular user of the towpath, has been at the forefront of a fund-raising drive to get as much of the canal open as possible. Congress has appropriated $2 million, and Babbitt hopes to match that by the end of the year through private and corporate donations.

``This is a piece of American history,″ Babbitt said. ``This is where a nation went West, moved over the Appalachians, went down and settled the United States of America. ... I’m out there walking my dogs on weekends, hiking with my wife. It’s kind of our answer to Central Park, only better.″

The drive is off to a good start. Gay said corporate donations have already hit the $500,000 mark, and private individuals have added another $15,000.

But the question remains, is saving the canal throwing good money after bad? The park has been damaged almost routinely by major floods for more than a century, and the cost of repairs keeps going up. Should nature should be allowed to take its course?

In response, Babbitt and park officials say the park’s historical and recreational significance is too great to cast aside. The solution, they say, lies with their engineers, who must come with some new solutions to a difficult problem.

``To make it floodproof would be next to impossible,″ Gay said. ``To minimize the impact is possible.″

End advance for Feb. 17-18

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