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The key person in Big Slackwater’s revival

HAGERSTOWN — Tom Perry has packed nature, faith and music into his 77 years.

Tom Perry talks about the repairs being done on the C&O Canal path near Big Slackwater in Williamsport.

Perry and his wife, Linda, are trained to remove an invasive plant along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal known as garlic mustard, and he volunteers to take church groups and others on guided bicycle rides on the towpath.

Perry is a retired Lutheran pastor. When an Orange, Va., church where a relative played a pipe organ decided it did not want the instrument, Perry decided he did.

He has the mammoth machine set up in a family room in his house in Williamsport, and he plays it periodically.

“I did a little bit of everything, dabbling around, here and there,” Perry said.

Perry is also pretty good at drumming up support for multimillion-dollar government work.

He has been described as “the key person” who made the restoration of the Big Slackwater section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park a reality, and he was honored for his efforts recently during a ceremony hosted by the Berkeley County, W.Va., chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.

Perry’s love for the outdoors can be traced to his childhood, when his parents used to take the family to areas such as Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County and Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, as well as Skyline Drive in Virginia.

He had relatives who farmed, so he became familiar with animals and growing crops.

Perry initially came to Washington County in 1970 to become pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Hagerstown.

He and his wife left the area and returned after about 10 years.

Perry joined the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Association, which strives to protect the towpath, and in 2005. Perry’s brother, Bob, who was a member of the association, appointed Perry to a committee that pushed for the Big Slackwater restoration.

The Big Slackwater section of the C&O Canal was closed after flooding along the Potomac River in 1996. That 2.7-mile section was closed for about 10 years, and was the only broken link in the popular hiking and biking path, which stretches 184.5 miles from Cumberland to Washington, D.C.

Not only did Perry believe it was important to restore a part of history that led to Washington County’s prosperity in the 1800s and early 1900s, but he wanted Big Slackwater restored for safety reasons.

Because of the closed Big Slackwater section, hikers and bikers were forced to take a hazardous 4.5-mile detour along Dam 4, Dellinger and Avis Mill roads, which have no shoulders. Two years ago, the National Park Service determined that over a five-year period, there were 35 accidents along the detour in which someone was taken to a hospital.

As a member of the Big Slackwater Restoration Committee, Perry and others sought support for the restoration of the deteriorated section of the canal. Organizations were asked to support the restoration, and Perry and others contacted homeowners in the area and users of the towpath to get their input.

In August 2006, Perry and others organized a boat ride on the Potomac River to take elected officials and others down to Big Slackwater to show them the damaged sections.

“That really caused it to sink in,” recalled former state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who was on the trip.

Munson said he had been pushing for two bills in the General Assembly that would have set aside roughly $800,000 for the restoration of a railroad lift bridge and Lock House 44, which are two historic C&O Canal structures in the Williamsport area.

Munson said Perry’s passion for the restoration of Big Slackwater convinced him to instead seek the $800,000 for Big Slackwater.

Funding for the restoration of Big Slackwater came together. The bulk of it — $12.8 million — came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the economic stimulus package.

Maryland provided $4.4 million through its Transportation Enhancement Program, and the C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal Association also contributed.

The new Big Slackwater stretch of the park now has eight wide bridges, or elevated walkways, along a 1.5-mile stretch, anchored by 121 columns bolted into rock.