Williamsport is a town in the western part of the U.S. state of Maryland that is situated on the Potomac River. George Washington once considered it to be the nation’s capital, but he decided against it due to the fact that large ships were unable to reach the town. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was later built allowing ship traffic to reach the town from Georgetown allowing goods to be brought from ports south of Washington D.C. Cushwa Basin was built as a part of the canal to be a place where the barges could turn around. Today, Cushwa Basin remains as a reminder of what Williamsport once was. Water remains in the canal between Cushwa Basin and Lock 44 to remind people of life on the canal. Weather permitting, seasonal boat rides can be taken between the Visitor Center (housed in an old warehouse) and Lock 44. (Construction is currently being done on the Conococheague Creek Aqueduct to be filled with water for future boat rides.) A visit to Cushwa Basin will give you a glimpse of the life of Williamsport.
Now some of you are saying, “That is amazing. It is great that they were able to preserve this section of the canal. This had to have been a very great town especially if it was considered to be the city as the nation’s capital. There is one problem. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is for boats. It is not for trains. Therefore, I will not be visiting this place.”
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was originally built paralleling the north shore of the Potomac River to allow boats to run between the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River. It began in Georgetown in present day Washington D.C., but it only made it as far as Cumberland, Maryland before it was abandoned. One of the stops along this canal was the town of Williamsport. It was here where the canal had a connection with the railroad.
As mentioned, Williamsport was a stop along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. When you visit Cushwa Basin, you will see the basin itself. You can visit the Visitor Center which is, as mentioned, housed in an old warehouse which also has a gift shop and a small museum. Across the parking lot is a museum about how the canal system works.
Now you are saying, “It is nice to see how the canal works, but what does this have to do with the railroad?”
This museum is housed in an old trolley power station. The power station supplied electricity to power trolleys that were operated in the region.”
Now you are saying, “That is nice, but it is just a power station for trolleys.”
That is true, but there is more to Cushwa Basin. As you walk around, you see a few abandoned tracks. When the canal was operational, coal was brought to this site by train to be loaded onto the barges to be shipped to Washington D.C. and ports beyond. You then see an old lift bridge. This bridge (which can still operate today) allowed boats to pass through while at the same time allow rail service to a nearby mill. (The mill is still standing but is currently in ruins.) If you take the boat ride, you will go right under this bridge the way the old canal boats did, and you will get a feeling of the days when the canal was in operation.
As you can see, you have a reason to visit Cushwa Basin after all.
Cushwa Basin is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park and is operated by the National Park Service. The Visitor Center and the Old Trolley Power Station is only open seasonally. The boat rides are free, but it only runs when conditions are favorable. The canal, old tow path and the lift bridge is accessible all year round from sunrise to sunset. The Lock House is also open seasonally for self-guided tours. The important part is that it is free.
The Cushwa Basin is located on U.S. 11 in Williamsport, Maryland just north of the Potomac River and south of the town center. It is easily accessible from Interstates 81 and 70. You can get more information about the operating hours, information on the on the aqueduct construction and the detour of the tow path and information on the canal boat rides at https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/williamsportvisitorcenter.htm.
Next time you are driving around and see signs for Cushwa Basin, go take a look and see a part of railroad history.