Williamsport: Canawlers, Soldiers, and the Almost Capital

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These itineraries, “Canal Towns: In the Shadows of the Civil War,” were developed, in part, with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. Photographs were provided by Judy Olsen Photography unless otherwise noted.
Williamsport Itinerary – Short Day

Itinerary 1: Canawlers, Soldiers, and the Almost Capital

If you have just a half-day or so, this itinerary explores Williamsport’s must-see sites related to the Civil War and the C & O Canal. Begin your visit of this delightful canal community at the Town & Local History Museum, and peek into lives of “canawlers” at Cushwa Basin. At Doubleday Hill enjoy dramatic views across the Potomac River and learn about the hill’s importance during the war. Visit the burial sites of notable people at Riverview Cemetery and end your journey with a short walking tour of town that includes some quirkier tidbits.

America’s Almost Capital City

Start your visit at the Town & Local History Museum in the stunning 18th-century barn at Springfield Farm (Springfield Lane, across from the high school). The museum features town memorabilia Civil War stories from the area, C & O Canal history, photographs, and more (Sundays, March through November, 1-4 PM and by appointment: 301-223-7711; free admission).

During the second weekend in July, don’t miss the Retreat Through Williamsport, where re-enactors stage some of Civil War skirmishes that took place here in 1863. Visit the town’s website for a full calendar of Williamsport events throughout the year.

George Washington once considered Williamsport for the capital city of the newly born United States, and you can still see a stone laid to designate the proposed Federal Square. From Cushwa Basin go about 50 yards up Potomac Street. On the left-hand side, across from Miller’s Lumber Company, look for a cut in the stone wall between the two houses. The marker is an X carved into a stone laid in the ground at the middle of the cut.

After you’ve seen where the X marks the spot, begin your explorations of Cushwa Basin and the C & O Canal.

A Classic Canal Town

Williamsport has more canal features within a half-mile stretch than any other town along the 184.5-mile canal. An aqueduct, a lock and lock house, turning basin, trolley barn, and both a railroad lift bridge and Bollman truss bridge make up the collection of historical gems, all examples of major canal structures. In addition, you’ll find a canal warehouse re-purposed as a visitor center (1 of 7) for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (summer hours: daily, 9 AM – 4:30 PM; winter hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 9 AM – 4:30 PM). Before you head out to explore Cushwa Basin and the towpath, pick up the walking tour brochure in the visitor center.

On the first Saturday in June, children can drop a line in the turning basin during the annual Fishing Rodeo, angling for blue gill, catfish, and bass. The canal through Williamsport is rewatered during summer and you can get a taste of “canawler” life aboard a replica canal launch boat (Memorial Day-Labor Day; call 301-582-0813 for hours of operation and fee).

Just north of the turning basin you’ll see the aqueduct crossing Conococheague Creek—1 of 11 aqueducts built along the canal that allowed boats to cross the larger creeks flowing into the Potomac. In 1862, Union troops destroyed the aqueduct to prevent Lee from escaping through Williamsport after the battle of Antietam. In June 1863, Confederates damaged it on their way to Gettysburg and again during their retreat through Williamsport a few weeks later. In 1920, the wall on the upstream creek side collapsed. Finally, in 1924 a monumental flood destroyed the aqueduct for good.

Downstream of Cushwa Basin you can view the only railroad lift bridge on the whole canal. The elevating bridge was built in 1923-24 for $100,000. As its name suggests, it lifted like an elevator to allow boats to pass under—not when trains were on it, of course! But it never saw much use. Just downstream of that is the Bollman bridge, designed by the renowned engineer Wendel Bollman. The bridge was finished in 1879 and restored in 2004 and is one of few surviving Bollman works in America. The piers on which it rests today once supported another bridge, across which Gen. Lee and his troops came on their way to Gettysburg.

Continue downstream along the canal towpath to Lockhouse 44 (1 mile roundtrip from Cushwa Basin). If you want to drive to Lockhouse 44 from Cushwa Basin, drive up Potomac Street 1 block and turn right on Vermont Street. Take Vermont 3 blocks to the end, bearing right onto Canal Street (cemetery on your right). Take an immediate left onto Main Street; the lock house parking lot is just past the houses.

Lock House 44 is 1 of only 26 surviving along the C & O Canal and showcases the gate mechanism used to operate the boat-locking system. The house was built after the Civil War but during the war, a storehouse and mill stood nearby.

For a longer day, continue downstream to the site where the last of Confederate troops crossed the Potomac after the Battle of Falling Waters on July 14, 1863. Nothing is left of the hastily constructed pontoon bridge the Rebels cobbled together during their retreat but the site is noted by an interpretive wayside and marker. The crossing is at towpath milepost 94.4, which is 5.2 miles from Cushwa Basin (one way).

Unless you want to continue downstream, head back to Cushwa Basin then visit Doubleday Hill and Riverview Cemetery.

“The United States was called upon…to defend its sovereignty…” -Capt. A. Doubleday

You might think of the great American sport of baseball when you hear Abner Doubleday’s name, the man credited with inventing the sport— a disputed claim and never once mentioned by Doubleday himself! Everyone, however, knows that the town’s Doubleday Hill was named for the man who led Union Army troops in building breastworks at Williamsport. From the start of the Civil War, the town had been bombarded by Confederates from across the Potomac River. Today three replica cannon stand guard on the hill. To reach the hill, drive or walk to Riverview Cemetery above the canal. Doubleday Hill is the small area on the north end. See remnants of the 1861 breastworks below the hillock that flies the flag. Where the hillock is now a low-slung building once stored munitions. As you stand on the hill, you know why it was chosen for the job: Union troops posted there would have easily seen Confederates crossing the river.

Doubleday shares “his” hill with Riverview Cemetery, where soldiers of wars throughout America’s history, from the Revolution through World War II, are interred. Look for the stones engraved with the insignia of the Grand Army of the Republic (a badge shape), which identifies Union soldiers. One soldier buried next to Doubleday Hill, James Hawken, actually served with the Confederates, as indicated on his stone by the letters “CSA,” Confederate States of America. Stones with the letters “USCT” denote members of the United States Colored Troops. One hundred seventy-five regiments of African Americans were formed in 1863, making up about one-tenth of the Union Army.

Others buried at Riverview include: General Otho Holland Williams, town founder; Cletus “Boots” Poffenberger, 1930s pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Harvey Brant, the last keeper of Lock 44 on the C & O Canal.

When you’re done at the cemetery, take a walk through town to view more interesting sites.

Williamsport on Foot

From the cemetery, take a walking tour of town. Exit the cemetery on Commerce Street, go 1 block, and turn right on Salisbury Street. On the left at the end of the next block (corner of Conococheague Street and Salisbury) is Town Hall. Across Conococheague Street here, in June 1861, DeWitt Clinton Rench was shot and killed for proselytizing in favor of the Confederates. Locals call it the first Washington County fatality in the Civil War.

If you want to do the rest of the tour on foot or bike, park in the bank parking lot behind Town Hall. Head north on Conococheague Street to Potomac Street. The blue building on the northwest corner was the Taylor Hotel during the Civil War. On the corner (Conococheague St. side) look for a small protrusion in the curb, an extra stone painted red. Legend says Gen. Lee stood on this stone (which was 2 feet high then) to answer citizens’ questions about the state of the war during his retreat.

During Lee’s retreat through Williamsport, the town played reluctant host to thousands of Confederate troops trying to reach Virginia (now West Virginia) after their defeat at Gettysburg. Unable to cross the rain-swollen river, Rebels were trapped between the river and an advancing Union cavalry. For 10 days they waited, while using every scrap of wood from fences, barns, and other buildings—even whole canal boats—to construct pontoon bridges for the crossing. As you stroll along Potomac Street imagine what it was like for the town to be overrun with soldiers. Many of the buildings still standing, including the lovely St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, served as regimental hospitals for Confederates wounded at Gettysburg.

From Potomac Street, turn right (south) on Artizan Street and go 1.5 blocks to #22, now the Star of Hope (Pentecostal) Chapel. Completed in 1868, the building was the first African American school in Washington County.

Continue to E. Church Street and turn right (west); go about 1 block to #16, a large white house with yellow trim. The house (private property) once harbored the John Brown Bell during—and long after—the war. The bell had hung in the Engine House at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown and company were captured after raiding the armory.

If you parked your car behind Town Hall, continue down Church Street and turn right (north) on Conococheague; go 1 block to Salisbury.

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