Along the Canal: A Week of New Beginnings

by: Ashley Dam

On my first day as the administrative history and ethnography specialist at the C&O
Canal I was already hitting the ground running. The orientational expectations I held
were thrown out for an exciting look into the park’s upcoming project of reconstruction
and rehabilitation of a bridge near the canal’s locks 3 and 4 within Georgetown. While
building tours and occupational disclaimers awaited me during orientation, they most
certainly did not greet me on that first bright morning.
As me and two other cultural resources personnel piled into a car at 7am, I couldn’t help
but be skeptical. How would attending this meeting help me with my research? I
literally have no clue what is going on. Despite my initial fears, my unorthodox
introduction to a day working at the canal proved quite fruitful. This “field trip” was to
attend a meeting between the C&O Canal’s cultural resources department and the
District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation. With the advisement of several
engineers, the park’s superintendent, and my park counterpart Sophie, I was able to
understand the immense layers of bureaucracy that befell any complex, yet
good-intentioned project encountered by the park. Regardless of the superficial benefits
a project may promise, I learned about the intersecting nature of government,
environmentalist endeavors, land stewardship, and the preservation of history.
Thus began my busy, but exciting week at the C&O Canal. From speaking to
knowledgeable historians, to trekking through thick forests with machetes, I began to
understand how expansive the park was. While I was doing my research solely in the
administrative history, I was introduced to the hidden gems of the park. I spent an

entire day visiting important sites all over the park, and even hiked the famous Billy
Goat Trail. The park’s grandeur began to grow on me and I became more and more
excited about delving into the research aspect of things. Although I’d be compiling a
report on past 26 years, the task didn’t seem as daunting as it initially had. This is my
park, and I love it!
When I was in 8th grade I had an English teacher who taught us about this wondrous
movement known as transcendentalism. Founded by a collective of scholars on the east
coast of the United States, this philosophical movement emphasized the inherent purity
and goodness of both nature and mankind. As I sat upon a rock gazing over the Potomac
River in the Great Falls portion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical
Park, I felt an immense peace befall me. In front of me was a combination of feats of
both in nature and engineering; I was at the center of both past and present. I was
astounded by the glory of this park and could not wait to encode its distinct,
foundational history. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever
achieved without enthusiasm”. My newfound love for the C&O Canal and research is
beyond enthusiasm; a love for researching is rare, but a love for ethnographic research is
exceedingly rare — here’s to a summer of falling in love with anthropology all over again.


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