The Cushwa Basin, located in Williamsport, MD, is situated at the confluence of the Conococheague Creek and the Potomac River. Because this area is such a popular entry point to the C&O Canal towpath, there is a National Park Service Visitors Center located here, in the historic Cushwa Warehouse beside the basin. The warehouse is in the process of being restored to interpret the 1920’s era on the Canal, and the neighboring Conococheague Aqueduct is also being rebuilt. This historic area was once the home of brick manufacturing and shipment of coal along the Canal — canal boats would use the turning basin to load coal and bricks on their trips between Cumberland and Georgetown.
All Canal Lovers should visit the Cushwa Basin, check of the Visitors Center, hike the towpath, and explore Williamsport. Check out this list of 9 things you can do next time you visit!
The Visitors Center at Cushwa Basin is open Wednesday-Sunday, open from March to November. Call 301-582-0813 for up-to-date information on tours, hours, and events at Cushwa Basin!
1. Watch a 1917 silent film in the Visitors Center!
Stop by the Visitors Center and watch two short films including a 1917 silent film (this was before the advent of “talkies”) set along the Canal produced by the Edison Company. This film has great footage of Paw Paw Tunnel, lock operations, and life of those on the Canal. Inside the Williamsport Visitor Center you will also find an information desk, a gift shop, and several small exhibits. Displays include a topographical map of the canal, an antique desk used by Cushwa’s management while in operation, and the old Cushwa warehouse
2. Take in the View From the Cushwa Basin Warehouse
Watch your head as you step up into the original warehouse of the Cushwa Brick Building! Connected to the Visitors Center, this large room provides a broad view out from the coal portage onto the basin where coal would have been swept into waiting canal boats as they made their way to and from Georgetown. There are many relics in the warehouse that were either left behind by the warehouse workers or fished out of the bottom of the Basin that give Williamsport its iconic rustic atmosphere.
3. Explore the Exhibits in the Trolley Barn
Today, the trolley barn contains historic photos, historic toys, children’s costumes, a scale model of a canal boat’s mule stable, and dioramas. Watch “On the Canal,” a 4-part, 16 minute video series about the Canal path from Georgetown to Cumberland.
4. Complete Cushwa Basin’s Junior Ranger Program and Scavenger Hunt!
Bringing a younger crowd? Great! Available at the Visitors Center front desk are Junior Ranger Programs for Cushwa Basin. Junior Rangers can explore the Trolley Barn, experience how Canal locks worked through interactive models, and dress up in period-clothing costumes in the Trolley Barn. They can look at pictures and check for clues for the scavenger hunt, sharpening analytical skills and learning more about the Canal at the same time.
5. Walk to the Rail Lift Bridge….
Originally built by the Western Railroad Company in 1923, it enabled cars of coal to move over the canal. This iconic Rail Lift Bridge was lifted in June, 2016 for the first time since the 1920’s. This has enabled boat tours to go from Lock 44 all the way to Cushwa Basin!
6. And Down to Lockhouse 44!
Heading upstream from the visitors center, cross over to the Towpath and head down to Lockhouse 44, about four tenths of a mile. There are tours featuring Lockhouse 44 offered every weekend!
7. Take a Bike Ride Down to Dam 5
If you’d like to explore the stretch of towpath near the Cushwa Basin, you can borrow a bike from the visitor center free of charge! Simply leave a driver’s license or car keys at the front desk and pick the right bicycle for you. We have a collection of well-maintained bikes for men, women, and children. Each biker is required to wear a provided helmet. Dam 5 is well within biking distance from the visitor center, about 7.5 miles up the canal.
8. Take a Boat Tour With a Ranger
Take a launch boat piloted by a Ranger down the Canal! The boat travels from the berm at Lock 44 down to the Cushwa Basin and across the newly-rehabilitated Conococheague Aqueduct. Boat tours are usually offered three times a day Saturday and Sunday during the summer season. Call ahead to make sure the boat tours are running on your desired day– they are affected by extreme weather and construction on the Canal.
9. Visit the Aqueduct and ask a Ranger to Tell you about Captain Myers’ Bad Day…
Let’s just say that a picture is worth a thousand words. The Aqueduct was not maintained well, and on April 20th, 1920, Captain Frank Myers was passing through the Aqueduct when the wall gave way. Thankfully, no mules or humans were harmed, due to Myers’ quick thinking– he saw the wall begin to waver and told his stepson Thomas to release the mules from the ties to the boat. The Captain was embarrassed and angry, but unharmed; the Aqueduct sure lost a lot of “face–” that is, surface of the aqueduct!
Written by Monica Larcom