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Park service proposes C&O Canal upgrades in Williamsport

WILLIAMSPORT — The National Park Service said Monday it aims to make the western Maryland town of Williamsport a star attraction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, complete with a turn-of the-20th-century town square and boat rides along more than ¾ of a mile of the canal.

The ambitious plan is detailed in a 138-page environmental assessment open for public comment through July 15. A public meeting on the project is set for July 28.

The Potomac River town lies near the midpoint of the 184.5-mile canal that once carried mule-drawn freight vessels between Cumberland and Georgetown in the District of Columbia. The towpath is now a hiking-and-biking trail that connects in Cumberland to the Great Allegheny Passage, another hiker-biker trail extending nearly to Pittsburgh.

“Williamsport, Md., is perhaps the best location to tell the story of the canal’s operations, particularly as it relates to coal transportation,” the park service document states.

The agency’s preferred alternative includes rewatering about a quarter-mile of the canal to extend a half-mile stretch that already holds water. Park visitors could then ride in 15-to-18-passenger launch boats through restored features including the Conococheague Aqueduct, a boat lock and an unusual lift bridge built in 1923 to raise a section of railroad track so boats could pass beneath it.

The park service said it also hopes to restore the old town square near the Cushwa Basin coal storage area. The agency said it would either swap some land with the town of Williamsport or work out a cooperative agreement with the town to complete that phase of the project.

The park’s chief interpreter, Bill Justice, had no cost estimate or timetable for the project. He said no federal funds are currently available but that the advance planning could put the project in a good position for congressional consideration.

Justice said the park service has identified Williamsport as a visitor destination since the mid-1990s.