The larger of two barges trapped along the Potomac will be removed in the next few weeks. Photo: C&O Canal National Historical Park

Salvage of Harpers Ferry Runaway Barge Begins

More than six weeks after two construction barges broke loose amid heavy water flow on the Potomac River, attempts to salvage the larger barge are finally beginning. And it could take up to four more weeks to remove it.

A spokesperson for C&O Canal National Historical Park says contractors finalized their plan last week and recovery operations are underway on the larger of the two barges, which is stuck in place on the ruins of Potomac Dam No. 3. One of the reasons given for the four-week estimate to remove the barge is that it’s weather-dependent: efforts may be delayed by rain or flooding.

The smaller barge, which also floated downstream from C&O Canal National Historical Park, had been pinned by water currents at Potomac Dam No. 4. It was easier to remove, and was clear of the river by May 12, a few days after it broke loose. It did have an excavator and some smaller construction equipment that came off its deck, and those are visible sitting on the bottom of the river when river levels are down. Park officials say the contractor is currently making a plan to recover the equipment.

Both barges were part of a project at McMahon’s Mill to rehabilitate a historic stone retaining wall and stabilize the towpath along a 0.9-mile stretch in Williamsport, Md. They were loaded with stones and equipment to shore up the C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River.

However, in an early May rainstorm, more than 2.3 inches of rain fell in the Harpers Ferry area, causing intense river currents. As Bay Bulletin reported, barges were carried downstream at a surprising speed, captured on video by people along the river.

During the removal operation of the larger barge, there will be some impact to trail use for the safety of the public. Signed closures will be in place at the Potomac Street Extension/Armory Canal Trail at the trail’s south end and access to Potomac Street off Bakerton Road will be closed to the public.

On the river, boaters should stay as far to the Maryland shore, “river left” when looking downstream, as possible to avoid the salvage area. The park asks that no one approach the barge with other vessels or try to board it.

-Meg Walburn Viviano