It took me 60 years, but I finally visited quaint old Cumberland, Md. That’s the 19th-century terminus of the 185-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that played an evocative role in my Arlington boyhood.
Growing up walking-distance from Chain Bridge, my pals and I had our earliest fishing experiences on the Potomac and the parallel canal. My father took me on walks along its towpath, where we saw the long-since-decommissioned mule-drawn Canal Clipper boat. The sight may have planted my first notions of long-distance commerce and changing technology.
These memories survive from a time when the canal was in disrepair (its restoration as a park, championed since the mid-1950s by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, didn’t get going until 1971.)
The original canal, begun in 1828 in Georgetown to provide transport to points west, does have Arlington ties, I’m assured by Arlingtonian Mike Nardolilli, president of the nonprofit C&O Canal Trust.
Arlington, of course, was part of Alexandria County when the canal was conceived (it separated in 1920).
The Old Town Alexandrians in the 1830s built their own seven-mile canal hugging the river past Four Mile Run through Arlington and connecting to Georgetown. A key part of it was the 1,000-foot Alexandria Aqueduct near what became Rosslyn and Key Bridge. The need for Virginia canal water for Alexandrians may have been a reason many supported retrocession from the District of Columbia in 1846, according to C.B Rose Jr.’s book “Arlington County, Virginia: A History.”
Nardolilli says he “always felt that some of the water-filled depressions on the Virginia side along the George Washington Memorial Parkway are vestiges of the Alexandria Canal.”
Shipping on the C&O Canal faded decades before it closed in 1924, superseded by railroads and steamships.
But its watery pathways set the stage for my childhood experiments in recreational fishing.
Springtime in the early 1960s brought grownup cries that “The herring are running!” So my buddies and I in our “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” T-shirts would traipse through the woods carrying our bamboo poles and red plastic bobbers.
Afraid to clamber down the rocks to fish in the rapids of the Potomac, we often crossed Chain Bridge and descended the steps to the canal. But not without stopping to chat with “the Captain,” who ran the bait, tackle and Pepsi shack alongside a Shell gas station at the bridge’s Arlington entrance. (It dated to the 1930s and was owned by a Meredith Capper, according to Carole Herrick’s fine book on Chain Bridge titled “Ambitious Failure.”)
The “Captain” once persuaded us 10-year-olds that instead of live bait, we should buy his reusable rubber worms.
I can still hear my friends’ mocking jabs on the way home after a day when we spent hours catching no fish: “Hah! Fake worms in the canal!”
* * *
On this 40th anniversary of the climax of Watergate, I commend developer Monday Properties for promising to preserve the historic sign at the Rosslyn site of the garage where reporter Bob Woodward met secret source Mark Felt.
This June, the county board okayed replacing the parking facility with a 28-story apartment building.
Arlington’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, I learned from my own special source, struggled with whether to use the less-than-tasteful term “Deep Throat” in the headline when they drafted the metal sign. Their compromise? Bury it deep in the text.