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Cleaning Up America's Only 'Linear Park' After A Flood Runs Through It

As rangers wade knee deep into the receding flood waters of the Potomac River and jot down their observations in notebooks, Washingtonians are bracing themselves for the actual damage assessment for their beloved C&O Canal National Historic Park.

Little known outside of the nation's capital and its environs, the park is to Washington what Central Park is to New York and the Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco. Hugging the northern bank of the Potomac River from Georgetown 185 miles west to Cumberland, Md., the one-of-a-kind linear park is now partially closed in the wake of a severe flood over a week ago.

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Preliminary estimates put the repair bill at $10 million - and perhaps as high as $20 million. As part of last Friday's continuing budget resolution, Congress has allocated $2 million to the rebuilding effort.

Just as significant, donations from the park-loving public have started to flood the National Park Service office, says spokesman Earl Kittleman. The Park Service, still preoccupied with damage assessment and cleanup, has not yet tallied the donations, but Mr. Kittleman notes that volunteers will be needed, just as they were after past floods, to help fix the canal.

Vast sections of the canal and its earthen levee, known as the towpath, have been washed away. Also gone are at least half of the dozens of wooden footbridges that criss-cross the canal. Damaged are the historic lock houses that dot the peaceful waterway.

It is unclear how much Congress will allocate to overhaul the canal. Before the flood, Congress put the C&O on a list of parks to possibly close to save money. Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary and regular patron of the park, will leading the fight to rebuild the historic area.

'Losing our heritage'

''This flood could not have come at a worse time,'' says Mr. Babbitt, who lives just blocks from the canal and walks there often with Maggie, his Hungarian Vivsla. ''It's a problem we are having in historic parks all over.... We are losing our heritage because of our inability to keep up with restoration and maintenance, and now this flood on top of it - it has dealt a tremendous blow.''

The C&O Canal is a living green line that stretches more than 200 years back in time. A waterway extending west was a vision of George Washington, and in 1784 the Potomac Company, a transport and trade firm, began digging what many consider a remarkable engineering feat for that time.

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Back then the canal was compared to the great wonders of the world. Later, in 1828, the transportation company Chesapeake and Ohio (the C&O) shaped the canal as it looks today. The canal saw its heyday in the late 1800s as barges, pulled by mules along the canal's towpath, carried coal and other goods into Washington from the west. It became a national park in 1971, and through the years its existence has prevented development and created habitat for wildlife.

Abe, George, and Susan

The canal has been used by people from all walks of life. Abraham Lincoln traveled on horseback along this canal to review Union troops drilling on the river banks. A young Jacqueline Kennedy, as a senator's wife, used to stroll the canal during cool summer evenings, and more recently George Bush jogged here. It sat in obscurity for decades, until in the 1950s Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas championed the canal as a place of refuge.

When the Potomac swelled Jan. 21 to its fifth highest level in more than a century, billions of gallons of gushing water tore the earthen embankments of the towpath and the canal walls. Near Old Anglers Inn, several miles upstream, a hole 100 feet wide and 40 feet deep was torn in the towpath.

The destruction has disrupted all of the river's routines. Members of the United States Olympic kayak and canoe teams, who train on the park's waters, for example, are busy rebuilding their practice course, which was washed away by the flood.

Susan Welchman, who for more than 10 years has biked the 10 miles to her D.C. office at National Geographic from her home in nearby Maryland, says she will miss the tranquility the park offers. ''It's being able to see a bit of nature before you get into your office. You see beaver and deer and people on the river ... and you can daydream and you can get air. It's the best part of the day.''

The park is expected to be closed for at least a year, perhaps two, a loss for the 4 million people who visit and use the park each year. But given the park's historic value, Babbitt says, rebuilding is worth it.

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