To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the C&O Canal becoming a National Historical Park, we are featuring 50 Canal Stories throughout 2021. Each story will take a look at a person’s relationship with the C&O Canal. Whether an NPS ranger, a volunteer, or a visitor, everyone has a story to tell about the canal! If you want to share your story, submit it to us at the link here, email it to us at [email protected] or post it on your social media feeds with the hashtag #MyCanalStory.
Francis Grant-Suttie, Board Member of the C&O Canal Trust
C&O Canal Trust: What is your history with the C&O Canal?
Francis: Growing up in Zimbabwe, my earliest recollections were of hiking out in the wilderness with wildlife. Arriving in the United Sates in the mid-sixties, my family adopted the C&O Canal as our local ‘American wilderness’ in our own backyard. So I grew up exploring the billy goats trails, skating on the canal, canoeing from Swains lockhouse up the canal for picnics and long hikes with our dogs along the towpath. The C&O Canal has an endless bounty of wild things and spaces for adventure.
C&O Canal Trust: During your time volunteering with the Trust, what is your favorite project you have been a part of?
Francis: I have thoroughly enjoyed being a quartermaster to Swains and Pennyfield lockhouses. Every time I set foot inside a lock house or cut the grass, or spruce the place up for spring cleanup, I am taken back to the 1830-50s and allow myself to re-imagine what life was like in the early days being a lock keeper or a canaller, the canal boats pulled by mules with all the attendant business of canal living with travel going up and down the towpath. To me, the lockhouses are representative of the entirety of the history of the canal to the present. It is always satisfying hearing our lockhouse guests regale how much fun they had staying over while feeling history seep through the stone walls, whispers of long ago beckoning to them in the middle of the night. One always remembers that night or weekend spent in a lockhouse.
C&O Canal Trust: Do you have a favorite canal memory?
Francis: Mike Mitchell, former chair of the Trust’s board and I decided to hike the towpath from Georgetown to Cumberland last September raising funds for the Trust as our Park After Dark annual fundraiser was canceled due to the covid pandemic. Both of us are photographers, so we took photographs documenting the beauty and grandeur of the canal, the towpath and river all the way north.
The hike was a wonderful and exhilarating experience along an endless towpath. It was a walk through history: The American-Indian wars, The American Revolution and, especially The Civil War, in the steps of Union and Confederate armies slaughtering each other whether at Antietam or Gettysburg or any number of battles or skirmishes along the way. At times, I think the ghosts of warriors are coming out of the cornfields or the woods fixed bayonets charging straight our way. Or the skeletal hand, rearing up out from a forgotten graveyard trying to pull me back down into the netherworld of the slain. Canal hallucinations of a past reawakened!
But this was really about the present and future generations, who can enjoy the wonders of nature with ancient lockhouses guarding the canal and towpath, nestled by the Potomac River often built in wild and inhospitable places. One could only marvel at the engineering feat and sheer determination of those who built it. This was a continuous adventure with camera in hand, as there was something of interest around each corner: a run down grist mill, whiskey distillery, massive bluffs, the Paw Paw tunnel, caves where civil war refugees would seek safety, stunning vistas of the river with tall sycamores hovering over in their majesty, osprey, red-tailed and Cooper hawks, bald eagles, finches, warblers and eyes seemingly upon us constantly. One also experiences the astonishing refreshment of solitude.
But all hikes have a last step at an intended destination, and so Mike and I crossed that threshold and, of course, went to the closest pub for a celebratory beer! We toasted all our supporters of The Trust for what has become a memory of a lifetime. The photographic albums now tell the story.
C&O Canal Trust: What is your favorite spot on the canal?
Francis: Just down from the Marsden bridge and campground, follow the path along the river up around some bends in the river there is a rock promontory jutting out into the Potomac. Our current family, the kids and dogs would hike to what we nicknamed “Lookout Rock” on a regular basis for picnic lunches. The dogs swim in a semi-enclosed pool and we sit on the rocks and spot eagles, songbirds, beaver, count turtles and all manner of wildlife. It is a place of bliss, togetherness and peace. To get there in the spring, one walks carefully amongst beds of Virginia bluebells wondering if you are floating on a sea of blue butterflies. Nature at its best.
C&O Canal Trust: What does the canal mean to you?
Francis: The canal is a walking mediation where serenity, contemplation and awareness fill your every sense and being with energy, spirit and renewal. The canal is a never-ending story, a history of place and belonging where you just be. It gathers people into memories and stories that become family folklore.
A photo essay by Francis Grant-Suttie
“Moments in Time”
That fades to a fuzzy yet beautiful afterthought
Standing on the edge of a river, early morning mist, staring up at the endless towpath
Passing by ancient dwellings, a lock house, a grist mill, memories of what was once a way of life
Mya, our future
Arriving at a destination, the last track
Only to turn around and go home