C&O Canal Milepost Repainting Project
by Jim Tomlin
As a PATC Trail Co-Maintainer of 2.5 miles of the AT that is on the C&O Canal towpath at Harpers Ferry, graffiti on Park property on that very popular section is often an issue to be dealt with. In July 2019, I went out to repaint Milepost 60 on that section, which had been vandalized with paint. Little did I know what I was getting myself and others into!
The C&O Canal National Historical Park is one of the true gems of the National Park Service. Spanning 184.5 miles along the Potomac River from Georgetown in DC to downtown Cumberland, Maryland, with a distinct mile marker standing at every mile, the Canal is fascinating for both its incredibly rich history and nature. Each year, many people bicycle the entire Canal, which is now connected via the Great Allegany Passage rail-trail to go all the way, off-road, to Pittsburgh, PA. PATC has had a long history of collaboration with the C&O Canal NHP, with one PATC Trail District comprised of trails around Great Falls, MD, managed by one of PATC’s best District Managers, Martha Becton. Seven miles of PATC’s Tuscarora Trail is also on the C&O towpath, near Hancock, MD, managed by another fantastic PATC volunteer, Pete Brown.
AT hikers often consider the almost-level 2.5 mile walk along the towpath to be boring, but if they only knew the fascinating 200+ years of history of this area and the Canal in general, they would consider it a highlight of their entire AT hike. For more info, I suggest starting with the captivating book Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal by Thomas F. Hahn, Revised Edition (Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2015). You may find it difficult to put this book down, and it continually makes you want to see more of the Canal.
The Park was established in 1971, making 2021 the 50th anniversary. Wanting to do something nice for the Park to celebrate the anniversary, as I was stooped over the Mile 60 marker, I had an idea. The mile markers were in generally rough shape, flaking paint, and cruddy-looking. People use them all the time to gauge their bike trips/walks/runs. Why not repaint ALL of the mile markers as a volunteer project?
It was at this point that the project was started, but the project was truly made possible when it was joined by PATC member Meredith Matczak, whose inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm (as well as outstanding painting skills) kept the project moving forward. Without Meredith, this project would never have succeeded.
Each concrete milepost had to be painstakingly scraped, wire-brushed, sanded, painted National Park Service brown, allowed to dry, and the lettering, numbers, and adornments painted white. This white, by the way, is the exact same white paint used for blazes on the AT! Each milepost took, on average, 1.5 hours to repaint. As you will see in the photos, some were in much worse shape than others.
An individual could paint four or five posts a day, bicycling in between them, carrying all necessary tools and supplies. Work commenced in September 2019. It required 45 person-visits of volunteer work before the final post, 184, was painted in Cumberland MD in May 2020.
Mike Bucci of the C&O Canal Association (a non-profit which I can recommend that you join) also helped by repainting the mileposts in the White’s Ferry vicinity. Every bit helps advance a big project!
To view the After and Before photos of each post, visit the photo album. (Note that the photo of milepost 60 is absent – I did not yet know what I was getting into when that first one was painted – and the post at 155 is currently removed for heavy equipment work.)
At the end of the album, there is a photo of the all-star Meredith painting the last post, and a layout of the tools that were carried via bicycle or on foot.
It should be noted that although volunteering was halted in March/April for the PATC region, the Park Superintendent of C&O Canal gave us a special exemption to finish the project. Since we were each working solo, not getting near others, and taking advantage of the long day lengths and cooler temperatures, we were extremely glad to be able to keep painting.
A special thanks to PATC for letting us use Little Orleans Cabin as a base of operations for the western Maryland repainting. The volunteers made a special monetary donation to the Club as a thank-you. Being right on the C&O Canal, Little Orleans was ideally suited for this volunteer work.
This was a very challenging project, logistically and physically. We often joked that it would have been a lot easier if the Park had put the mileposts closer together! But highly enjoyable to do, and it made a big difference in the Park’s appearance to just about every visitor.
For more information, contact Jim Tomlin, firstname.lastname@example.org. And I hope to see you on the Canal!
Be sure to see Jim's photo album
with pictures of each milepost before and after.
Well, almost each--see text.