Life in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area means often being surrounded by rich, historical landmarks and places. Those in the neighborhood of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal likely know of its origins as the “Great National Project”—or simply that it’s a lovely place to take a walk.
The canal is anchored by the Great Falls Tavern, a 190-year-old stone lock house that has become a symbol for the importance of preserving America's early modes of transportation in the Potomac community.
A small group dedicated to maintaining the Tavern dubbed themselves “Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern” in 1973. Donald Harrison, who has been President of the nonprofit since 2002, says the canal and National Historical Park have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“I just remember good times,” he says. “I grew up in Chevy Chase, so I’d go over there with my father to fish and hike. I was a Boy Scout and we’d go camping along there. I’d go with my friends in high school and now I take my wife.”
Harrison joined Friends more than 30 years ago as a way to remain involved in a place that means something to him—and to spread awareness to those who may not know why it’s so special.
“A lot of people know where the tavern is, but a lot of people don’t,” says Harrison. “Sometimes people who have lived around here for 10 years, they don’t even know about it when I ask if they’ve ever visited.”
The canal stretches more than 184 miles—184.5 to be exact—from Georgetown to Cumberland, parts of which survived the rise of railroads and destructive floods to remain watered, but commercial operations ceased in the early 1920s. Today, it provides a picturesque setting for those wanting to get out and enjoy the nature in their own backyards.
Hiking, biking, boat rides and over 20,000 historical, natural and recreational acres to explore draw more than five million visitors a year to the C&O Canal National Historical Park, making it the ninth most visited in all of the national park system—that’s more than Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon!
After a two-year fundraising campaign achieved the $545,000 goal, the Charles F. Mercer, a replica double-decked packet boat, was dedicated in September of 2006. It includes superstructure features typical of those from the 19th and early 20th centuries and though built with longevity in mind, its wooden and aluminum structure still requires quite a bit of maintenance.
To that end, the Friends are always looking for more, well, friends. In addition to maintaining the Tavern’s infrastructure, the group also hosts periodic clean-ups of the grounds, plants flowers and landscapes to keep it beautiful, and provides event support for various cultural functions (such as dances like the George Washington Birthday Ball and live music during the holiday season).
“We’d love to have more support,” Harrison says. “We’re a membership organization, but we’re not expensive. It’s only $35 for the year, whether you’re single or a couple. Our mission is to do whatever we can to help.”
To learn more about the Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern and how you can get involved, visit fhgft.org. To map out your visit to the C&O Canal, go to canaltrust.org/plan.