Shedding Light on C &O Canal’s African-American Roots


New project with National Park Service added to HISP’s roster of projects for the National Capital Region


This fall, UMD’s Historic Preservation program launches a year-long project for the National Park Service-National Capital Region (NPS-NCR) that will uncover an overlooked narrative of the area’s famed C & O Canal: the stories of the African-Americans, immigrants and women who built and worked along its banks for more than a century. The project joins two other existing contracts with the program that were renewed this year—a resource audit of cultural resources in various parks within the region, and an environmental history of the Potomac Gorge—continuing a six-year partnership to protect, preserve and celebrate the region’s National Treasures.


The C & O canal project is part of the NPS-NCR’s initiative to tell a more inclusive story of the canal, one that recognizes its diverse history and the contributions of those who made it an economic engine for the region. The project will be led by Assistant Clinical Professor of Historic Preservation Brent Leggs, who is also a senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), under the direction of Principal Investigator Dr.  Don Linebaugh. Comprised of detailed histories, stories and points of interest along the canal, the resulting report will be a crucial resource in the agency’s mission to enrich and educate those who now travel the canal for recreation and discovery.


HISP Director Linebaugh explains that “these NPS projects provide essential fieldwork and research experience for our graduate students.” “This type of engaged learning and practice,” he noted, “is a hallmark of our program and prepares our students to enter practice with excellent skills as well as solid theoretical foundations.”   


A contract extension to conduct historic structures fieldwork within the National Capital Region will once again have students documenting the condition of hundreds of historic buildings and structures. Because audits must be conducted every five years by the NPS, history repeats itself this year: students will once again tackle 25 miles of the George Washington Memorial Parkway (GW Parkway) and 70 miles of the C & O Canal, areas originally assessed by the program in 2011. Students will update conditions of over 150 structures along the GW Parkway—including the historic structures on Theodore Roosevelt Island—and audit over 400 structures along the C & O Canal. Resources range from lockhouses and sculptures to earthworks, drainage systems and culverts. The student work, which includes notes and photographs of each structure’s existing condition, is completed all on foot or by bike. This valuable information not only serves as a running history of the area’s historic resources, it also clues the NPS into any changes, deterioration or storm damage seen on the ground, allowing them to determine what, if any, action needs to be taken. The project will be directed by Post-Doctoral Associate Dr. Kirsten Crase.


The Potomac Gorge project, also directed by Dr. Crase, examines the important connections between natural and cultural resources in order to understand best practices for protecting and preserving them in the face of a changing, modern society. One of the most ecologically diverse areas of Maryland, the gorge is also less than one mile from the nation’s capital, making it the intersection of nature and human settlement for centuries. Working for the past two years with campus experts, and anthropology and preservation students, Crase has laid the groundwork for an extensive synthetic report outlining the entire human history of the area, in the hopes that the model can be replicated by the NPS in other parts of the country. Covering topics like transportation, trade history, plants and wildlife, the report will offer many clues to understanding how the area’s resources intersect. More importantly, the report will help administrators understand how practices between the many organizations at work in the area interrelate.


The new and renewed projects come at an exciting time, as the NPS celebrates its one-hundred-year anniversary this year. In total, the work conducted for the NPS-NCR this year totals nearly $200,000. The majority of the funds will support students within the program.


“Preserving our natural and cultural histories is critical to understanding our past and informing our future,” said Dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, David Cronrath. “We are pleased to play such an important role in the National Park Service’s efforts to make this region an example for the rest of the country.”

Posted on September 8, 2016 by Maggie Haslam