Coming of Ages Along the Potomac

Photo courtesy National Park Service

Saturday, August 22, 1998, Williamsport, Maryland - William Resley "Bodie" Turner knows all about George Washington's most beautiful mistake. He knows how, as a young surveyor, Washington worked along the Potomac River. As a dreamer, the man who would become our first President hoped the river could someday be navigable and that boats would carry cargo up and down the river between Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River - a link with the west. Turner knows this because he spent part of his childhood working along the river, and the rest of his life living on or near it.

Washington's dream led to the C&O Canal, which ran alongside the Potomac for 184.5 miles. The project resulted from a stroke of brilliance, chutzpah and naivete'. Brilliance, because it would someday allow a single boat to carry over 100 tons of goods between western Maryland and the Bay. Chutzpah, because building the canal would end up taking twenty-two years, and naivete', because it would become nearly obsolete before it was finished.

Young Bodie Turner was one of the last mule skinners on the canal and one of very few who are alive today. Though more than seven decades have passed since he worked on the canal, Turner fondly remembers those years and he enjoys spending time at the Cushwa Warehouse, now part of the National Park. He enjoys sitting down there, near the canal he knows so well, and talking to tourists about a job he once had and about two of the most exciting years in his youth.

Barely a teenager in the early 1920's, Bodie's job was to care for and direct a team of two mules as they pulled a boat up and down the canal. This meant walking alongside the mules for over twenty miles each day - tough on his bared feet. "The mules were well trained," Turner says. "They knew what to do - we would just crack a whip to keep them moving sometimes."

William Resley "Bodie" Turner, one of the last mule skinners on the C&O canal, a treasured link to our national history.

Plodding along at three miles per hour with 120 tons of coal, grain or cement (usually coal) Bodie would make the trip from Cumberland to Georgetown, Maryland in about one week, sometimes less. He usually had no cargo on the return trip (some boats carried whiskey upstream) but could only move about two miles per hour in this direction.

Along the way, there was plenty to keep this boy-turning-young man busy. Every few miles they would pass through one of the canal's seventy-four locks, which controlled the level and flow of the water. "Locking through" would take at least ten minutes, and often longer, as they might have to wait in a line of several boats.

There was two-way traffic on the canal, but only one mule path. Bodie was in charge when his boat encountered another. If his boat was loaded and going downstream, he had the right of way and would simply sail through. But, if his boat was going upstream, he would have to yield. Bodie would stop the mule team, take the rope off of the mules' collars and lower most of it into the water as the other boat sailed over it.

After a six-hour "trick" the mule teams got a shift change. "We took them up a wood ramp into the boat and then we'd bring out another team," he says. Bodie fed and cared for the mules and spent his spare time "playing cards" and occaisionally slipping into one of the many towns they passed.

The boatmen usually had their families along, as they lived on the boat, riding up and down the canal from spring through fall. Over ninety feet long, each boat had living quarters for the family in its stern. Bodie slept on hay near the mules.

Around the town of Paw Paw, the terrain was so formidable that a tunnel was cut through the mountains. The Paw Paw tunnel is 3,118 feet long and took fifteen years to build. As Bodie led his mules through this dark tunnel he sometimes heard singing. The boatmen sang, partly to soothe the fears of the young children aboard and partly because they liked to hear themselves sing in the acoustically active tunnel.

The Paw Paw Tunnel, 3,118 feet long, took fourteen years to build. You can walk through it in about twenty minutes. Singing is still allowed.

This tunnel is a beautiful part of what is now the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, the canal's final - possibly it's most beneficial - manifestation. Even before the canal was completed in 1850, it faced tough competition in the new age of locomotives and the B&O Railroad. This competition, and disastrous flooding, led to the demise of the canal as a transportation route in 1924.

Today, the park is enjoyed by thousands of people each year who walk, jog, bicycle, ride horses or canoe along what is one of the longest linear parks in the world. Visitors often set a goal of exploring the entire canal, either by bike or foot, or even by motor vehicle, stopping in at various interest points. Many park sites offer free camping for sdisastrous

The canal is dried up in many places and the water is very stagnant, so the majority of use is not of the canal, but of the towpath. Along the way, there are interesting artifacts of the canal's utility, including locks, aqueducts, dams, the tunnel and lock keepers' homes. The Park also offers a tremendous amount of access to the Potomac River for fishing and other water sports.

All this beautiful land is preserved forever for public use, because it was once exploited for private use, and all because of our first President's most beautiful mistake.

After two seasons of skinning mules, Turner found year-round work at the local leather tannery and then started a career as a bartender at Erne's Bar, now the Third Base Tavern, He and his family lived on the canal in a retrofitted canal boat for a while, before he moved to his present home, a few blocks up the hill from the Cushwa Warehouse and the National Park Visitor's Center.

Turner is entering yet another age in his life. Turning 89 in November, he is fighting emphysema and congestive heart failure. Our conversation is slow as he struggles to bring images forward and answer my questions. He shows no animation like the man his daughter once knew - only a soft chuckle comes through now and then. He uses all the energy he has to create an answer in his mind and to speak it. As we talk, his voice becomes very labored, and his daughter helps him take a few breaths from an inhaler.

I feel intrusive, like I should just leave and let this gentle man return to sleep, but I can see, as he continues to talk and he is reunited with memories of his childhood, he becomes more alive, more of the age he would like to be.

The next day I see Bodie Turner down at the visitor's center. The Williamsport C&O Canal Days annual festival is in its final hours and he is sitting next to a string band. Though he can't speak with the tourists much anymore, he is there to be with friends in his favorite environment. The sounds of a fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar fill the air, and Bodie sits in his place in history as those around him reel through the ages.

  • The U.S. government acquired the C&O Canal in 1938 and Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas "saved" the canal from becoming a parkway. President Eisenhower proclaimed it a national monument in 1961 and it was named a national historical park in 1971.
  • There are eleven stone aqueducts along the canal, carrying the water over existing large streams.
  • 74 locks raise and lower the boats a total of 605 feet over the 3,118 foot long canal.
  • The chief cargoes were coal, grain and cement. Lumber, brick, produce and whiskey were also carried.
  • During its peak, the canal held over 550 boats with over 2,000 mules.
  • Most boats were 93 feet long, 14.5 feet wide and drew 4.5 feet of water.
  • Workers were brought in from Wales, England, Ireland and Germany to build the canal.
  • In 1850, 22 years and $22 million later, the canal was completed to Cumberland, Maryland, about half the distance (to the Ohio River near Pittsburgh) originally intended

    *From the National Park Service publication "Canal Facts"

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