What in the world is that crumbling brick thing doing in the middle of the canal? The simple answer? It was a bridge pier – it held up a low bridge.
The complex answer? This pier and the canal are here because of Presidents Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, segregation, the Great Depression, the National Park Service, and, of course, mules.
A canal system along the Potomac River was the dream of President Washington, who saw the River as a connection to the Ohio River Valley. But it took the sweat - and sometimes the lives - of primarily Irish and German immigrants to make that dream a reality in the early 1800’s.
But back to our brick pier - this area, Carderock, almost 100 years later, hosted a new
presidential vision for a country deeply suffering the Great Depression. Here, two companies of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, used a Pivot Bridge to cross the canal to their camps at Carderock.
The brainchild of President Roosevelt, the CCC put the unemployed to work, largely on
conservation projects. Starting in 1939, eventually two camps each with nearly 200 enrollees were near Carderock, CCC Company 325 and 333. Both companies were designated in the official camp reports as "CJ" or "C-JR." "J" or "JR" indicated that they were junior camps, housing men between the ages of 17 and 25. "C" indicated that the men housed in the camps were, in the terms of the day, "colored."
Yes, despite the Act creating the CCC calling for no discrimination because of color, the CCC director Robert Fechner maintained segregated camps. When asked by the NAACP to explain himself, Mr. Fechner assured them “I am satisfied that the negro enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race. This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed.”
Regardless, on a salary $30 a month, these young African American men came here to
essentially rebuild and re-water the first 22 miles of the C&O Canal – clearing vegetation
and fixing locks and structures. The canal had been virtually untouched or maintained since abandonment in 1924, so this was no small task.
So, historically, the canal was built mostly by Irish and German immigrants. But the section of the canal you are experiencing today was re-built by the proud American members of CCC Companies 325 and 333.
And last but not least, why a pivot bridge? Well, the CCC crews were here to make a park.
That bridge to camp had to pivot so that boats pulled by mules - for the first time in 15 years - could travel the canal. But these boats weren’t the boats of the past, filled with coal and goods for Washington, DC. They were boats carrying visitors, they were the boats of the new park, and they were the boats of the Canal’s future.
The reconstruction, the rebirth, of this C&O Canal as a place of refuge, of recreation, began here in 1939, just across a bridge that is survived today by some bricks, crumbling in the woods.