POTOMAC – The passengers waited along the dock on a cool yet sunny Sunday afternoon for the captain of the Charles F. Mercer, a reproduction of a mule-drawn packet boat from the 1870s.
While the captain prepared for the 3 o’clock canal boat excursion, park ranger at the Great Falls Tavern Rebecca Jameson laid out the rules for the passengers.
“We’re going to go back in time to the 1870s,” Jameson said.
Though that particular excursion was the last one for the day Sunday, Great Falls Tavern recently began the excursion season, which will last from now until October.
The canal excursions will be generally held on the weekends at three different times, at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
According to the supervisory park ranger Kelly Fox, the program consists of an hour-long boat ride in which the narrator or captain of the boat would tell the passengers stories about life back in the days of the packet boats as well as the canal’s “place in history.”
Fox said the boat would be pulled by mules in the excursions, as they were about more than a century ago when this method was one of the cheapest methods to transport goods.
“Canals and water transportation have always been a cheap way of moving goods. And way back in George Washington’s time, he had a vision of using the Potomac River to move goods and people west towards the Ohio River. He started the first canal company in this area called the Potomac Canal Company,” Fox said.
Fox also said the company had built several canals to go around the obstacles of the Great Falls. This particular canal is 182 miles long and was intended to connect the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River. The canal operated from 1830 to about 1924, with the peak for transporting goods with this method being in the 1870’s.
Though the canal’s operating days were over by 1924, the canal was used for recreational boat tours by the 1940s.
“Boat rides have been off and on ever since that 1940s period. The boat that we operate here today is a boat that we had built in 2008,” Fox said.
Fox said a company called Scarano Boat Building was responsible for building the Charles F. Mercer. According to spokesperson for the company Bill Hubert, the replica took about a year to build. Hubert also said the company focused on bringing the replica as close as possible to the original design from the mid-19th century.
“From the design through the completion of the delivery of the boat (it took) approximately one year. When those boats were originally built, the idea of a motor on a boat was unusual, and canal (boats) couldn’t really use motors anyway because the earth and banks of the canal would be washed away by the propellers,” Hubert said.
Though the design was from around a century and a half ago, the boat did have some updates to keep the boat operational for as long as possible.
“We built it with a haul made out of aluminum so that the wood would not rot away from the action of sitting in freshwater,” Hubert said.
Hubert said using the aluminum on the bottom of the boat would save the company any maintenance costs that using wood would have caused.
The theme and historical focus of the boat’s design and the program, however, did not shift. Several rangers and volunteers on the boat were even dressed in clothes from the 1800’s.
According to the narrator and captain of the boat, John McCarthy, this method of moving goods and the science behind the boat’s “lift-lock” system was a good example of 19th century technology, which mainly involved hydraulic pressure, animal and man muscle.
While the lift-lock system was put in motion at the beginning of the excursion, McCarthy explained the system as an “elevator” that consisted of “butterfly valves” at the bottom of two gates, which would allow water to flood in or leave the space called the lock, raising or lowering the the boat.
McCarthy also went on to explain the group effort from families making a living off of the canal.
“On this boat in the late 19th century, we were long before labor laws, so everybody was expected to pitch in based on their ability. And that started out based on your age and your sex,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also talked about several aspects that were relevant to the boat functioning correctly, the lifestyles of the workers on the boat and how the business of the canal evolved.
One of the passengers, Steele Clark, from California, said the ride was very educational and had added to what he already knew about the Ohio canal.
“It’s wonderful, especially this trip. We were on a powered canal boat up on Erie Canal in northern New York. But this is a much more educational experience. You see how the locks (are) better firsthand because we can see them being operated by hand. And being pulled by mules and all that, (it was) very nice,” Steele said.
Marc Dantzker, another passenger, said he didn’t know these trips were available.
“I have a new appreciation for the canal. It was very wonderful they (the staff) were really fun. You’ve been walking up and down this thing for a long time, seeing a lot of things, it (the boat ride) was a good opportunity to hear about it first hand,” Dantzker.
Dantzker also said he enjoyed how the staff members played the roles of the crewmembers while staying in the present and educating the passengers about the history of the canal.
Passenger Frank Huong also said this was his first time hearing about the boat excursions.
“It’s my second time here (Great Falls Tavern). The first time I did not take a boat (ride). So I was curious about the experience. So this time I invited my friends just to take a tour,” Huong said.
Huong also enjoyed how the staff kept some of the historic characteristics throughout the program.
Fox called the excursions opportunities to travel through time.
“What we like to reflect here at Great Falls (Tavern) is the ability for people to travel back in time and truly enjoy what life was like on a canal,” Fox said. “You hear the water rushing in the river. You hear the clapping of the mules’ feet and you are able to go at the same pace that they went in the 1870s.”