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.
Catherine Bragaw, Former Chief of Interpretation
C&O Canal Trust: What is your relationship / history with the C&O Canal?
Catherine: I began my career with the C&O in 2013 as a Supervisory Park Ranger. I was fortunate for work in both districts before taking the position as Chief of Interpretation, Education and Volunteers. I left in 2019 for a new position with the NPS, but will always be in love with the Canal and continue to be a member of the C&O Canal Association
C&O Canal Trust: When did you first learn of the C&O Canal?
Catherine: I grew up in Frederick County so the canal has always been a part of my life. When I took my first position at Harpers Ferry NHP, I studied and interpreted the canal story because it was so intertwined to the narratives of Harpers Ferry. I grew in my understanding of the canal’s rich history and its significant place in in the early days of the Republic and the Washington DC story. My family had deep roots in DC and generations lived in Georgetown, so it feels like it is deep in the bone.
C&O Canal Trust: You worked as the Park’s Chief of Interpretation. Can you talk about that experience?
Catherine: Coming to the C&O was one of the best decisions I have made in my career. My colleagues there were and still are some of the best and brightest in the park service. The canal is also fortunate to have the devoted work of an amazing group of volunteers, partners, and Canal Classroom Corp teachers. I learned so much from so many. The work is good, broad and intense – it is so complex! One of the top ten most visited park sites in the country, the C&O is rich in cultural and natural resources and touches so many communities. It is no wonder that the C&O Canal has been a proving ground for so many superintendents across the park service.
C&O Canal Trust: What is one thing that you think first-time visitors to the Park would find the most interesting?
Catherine: There is so much of our history that is imbedded in the Big Ditch – beginning with George Washington who dreamed the dream. John Quincy Adams would describe the C&O Canal project as a world wonder. One of the first national projects, it was an amazing feat, despite the struggles. Here is the story of the immigrant, the story of labor, the story of human ingenuity, the story of a nation divided, the story of movement, the story of the river, the story of the underground RR – these only a few of many. One of the hardest challenges is which story to tell and sometimes the story of the beauty of nature found along the towpath is what someone may seek the most.
C&O Canal Trust: Do you have a favorite memory of the Park or working for the Park?
Catherine: Honestly, I loved it all. I loved our staff retreats and trainings in the park, loved watching the kids learn and have fun, I loved our mules, the Mercer rising in the lock, taking the hike over the tunnel, the day we opened a new Track Trail, staying up late to see Hollie Lynch win the National Freeman award, our park picnics, Park after Dark, Canal Pride days, the Swains lockhouse/canal quarters project, the African- American CCC wayside project, the Civil War program that Ben Helwig and I presented, Steve Dean talking about culverts – so many fav memories. If you ask me tomorrow, I might share a complete different set of favorite memories
C&O Canal Trust: You also attended the Canal Conference this year. Can you talk about that experience and what you enjoyed most about participating in it?
Catherine: I loved coming back home for the World Canal Conference. It was delightful to spend time with canallers again. I was so impressed with the work the Canal Association did to ensure an excellent conference despite the challenges of the pandemic. Most of my volunteering was on the bus trips with my old friend, Barbara Sheridan while we shared and learned from our old and new friends. The World Canal Conference offers opportunities to explore the interconnectedness of canals across the human experience. The conference is a space to share old and new ideas; a place where water as a global universal excites the continued discussion and exploration of reimagining these human-made waterways.
C&O Canal Trust: What is your favorite place or section of the C&O Canal?
Catherine: Every time I am asked this question, I answer it differently because I love so many places – Cumberland where my mother’s family lived for so many years, the stillness of Oldtown and the dragonflies (thank you Steve), the roar of the falls in Potomac, the places where the African-American CCC repaired and rebuilt, the graves to the Irish, the canal house at 7 locks in the snow, the glimpse of yesterday in Georgetown, the restored aqueduct at Williamsport, the bike path at Shepherdstown – so many keeping memories.
C&O Canal Trust: Finally, what does the canal mean to you?
Catherine: The canal will always be home to me – a place of refuge, sweet memory, and inspiration.