Georgetown Heritage, a new nonprofit organization created by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, is working toward renewing the Georgetown, a barge that once took tourists along the historical Chesapeake and Ohio Canal before structural damage and budget cuts ended the program in 2011.
The C&O National Historical Park under the National Park Service sponsored an educational boat trip for about 30 years, from the early 1990s until 2011, but could no longer afford the maintenance due to federal budget cuts in 2011, according to C&O Canal Historical Park Ranger Rebecca Jameson.
“[The barge] had structural damage that was too extensive to repair because of the age of the boat,” Jameson said.
Jameson added that the Georgetown Visitor Center of the Canal Park completely closed down this year due to the extensive structural damage faced by the Georgetown.
Daniel Filer, partnership coordinator of the C&O National Historical Park, said the irreparable state of the Georgetown boat forced the park to look for an expensive replacement, but the high cost made it impractical for the Park Service to continue its search.
“The boat in Georgetown is actually beyond repair. Essentially, the boat needs to be replaced and retire. I don’t know how much the new boats cost, but they are expensive,” Filer said.
The Georgetown BID, in its neighborhood improvement plan “Georgetown 2028,” decided to pick up where the park service left off and identified preservation of the canal as one of the items on its agenda.
“Something that a lot of community members would really want to see was the boat brought back to Georgetown,” Director of Georgetown Heritage Maggie Downing, the destination manager of Georgetown BID, said. “So the Georgetown BID, through our conversation with the National Park Service, realized that we really needed a group dedicated to working on the canal as well as other initiatives in the neighborhood related to interpreting Georgetown history. …There are lots of wonderful stories — but they aren’t told right now — about the neighborhood history.”
Georgetown Heritage was born of Georgetown BID’s desire to draw attention to the issue. The nonprofit functions as a fundraising community organization that will prioritize work on the C&O Canal, specifically for historical education.
“The creation of Georgetown Heritage came about because of the C&O Canal,” Downing said. “We saw this need to bring back the boat to our program, to bring educational programs back to the Georgetown section of the canal and to preserve this amazing asset, this wonderful historical site and natural resource, that we have in our community.”
Georgetown Heritage aims to fundraise through both private and public channels, including the National Park Foundation. The new partnership between the National Park foundation and Georgetown Heritage began in August 2014, and the National Park Service is already directly involved in forming a fundraising plan.
“We want to match private donors with federal funds and city funds. It’s a great private-public partnership that we are looking to create,” Downing said. “They were very involved from the beginning in the process of creating Georgetown Heritage, and we have regular meetings and conversations with them about friend group agreements and the projects that we are working on together.”
The 184.5-mile long C&O Canal runs parallel to the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. Commercially used from 1831 to 1924, the “Grand Old Ditch” witnessed the history of western expansion, the Civil War and industrialization. According to Jameson, a trip on the Georgetown along the well-preserved canal would transport tourists back in time to the days when the canal was frequently used.
“The C&O Canal is one of the largest intact, early 19th-century canals. We actually have functional lift walk, so the boats were able to run through lift walk just like they were when the canal was in operation,” Jameson said. “The boat would actually go through a lock, so you can see how the locks work and move the materials from the canal. And park rangers who were in period costumes would explain about the history of the canal and the people who were living on it,”
Jameson added that the Georgetown section of the canal boasts an excellent geographical location within Washington, D.C., as the start of the waterway.
“Georgetown is a highly visited section of our canal, so it’s good to have an operation there with the visitors to experience the park,” Jameson said. “It’s also the start of the canal, so it’s another significant site of the canal.”
Although fundraising has not yet begun as Georgetown Heritage waits for official confirmation of its nonprofit status, leaders of the organization are reaching out to the Georgetown community in preparation of an official capital campaign in early 2015.
“Right now, we are really looking forward to building a constituency,” Downing said. “We are sharing with the members of the Georgetown community our plan and ideas for the canal, trying to get them excited and recruit our board of directors.”