Seniors Dan Kirkwood and Tommy Siegel, like many students at GW, have government jobs – but unlike most, theirs entail wearing clothing from the 1800s, playing the banjo, speaking in colonial accents and knowing a lot about American history.
Kirkwood and Siegel work for the National Park Service as historical re-enactors and give boat tours on Georgetown’s portion of the historically preserved C & O Canal, a small strip of water running through the heart of the neighborhood. The 93-foot-long canal boat, also set up to be historically accurate, has no motor or brakes and is slowly pulled by two mules that walk on a dirt path alongside the canal.
Technically, Kirkwood and Siegel are certified park rangers and had to go through all of the security clearances any other government employee would have to get their jobs. But to their tour-goers on the boat they’re known as “Barnaby” and “Red Beard,” clad in wool button-down blazers, patched-up pants, work boots and a straw or top hat, like they just stepped out of the early 19th century.
“It’s a pretty wacky job,” said Siegel, who has been doing this for a few years now. “It’s funny because it’s a great job, but when people stop on the street when they’re walking by, they stare at you and wonder if you’re Amish or something.”
Siegel and Kirkwood said they all take turns doing the different duties of the hour-long tours, which are a few times a day Wednesday through Sunday each week. One person leads as the tour guide, another few set up the mules, while others help prepare and steer the boat throughout the ride.
“I basically got the best of both worlds – I’d love to live on a farm and I’d love to work in a city,” said Kirkwood, who is originally from suburban Pennsylvania and said he’s used to living around cows and horses. “I work in Georgetown and shovel mule shit, actually just having a grand ole time.”
The tour starts on the canal in Georgetown at Thomas Jefferson and 30th streets, where it is docked, goes under a bridge and into a “lift lock” where the boat is trapped in a section of the canal and water is added so that it can rise up to river level. The mules are then attached and pull the boat down the canal before turning around and retracing their steps back to the dock.
The canal boat rides were set up by the Park Service to remember an era in American history that is usually slighted, Siegel said. In the early 1800s the only form of transportation for Americans was horses and dirt roads, and the use of rivers for commerce was an untapped resource.
The C & O canal, short for Chesapeake & Ohio canal, broke ground under President John Quincy Adams. After the success of the Erie Canal in the Midwest, this canal was designed to extend 368 miles from D.C. to the Ohio River and be completed in 10 years using about $4 million, connecting an area that would provide invaluable for commerce. After 22 years, the canal had only reached its halfway point at 184 miles in Cumberland, Md., and $14 million had already been spent, so the project was never completed.
The quick success of the railroads occurred not long after that and canals were struggling to survive as a transportation medium. When the C & O canal’s company went bankrupt, the railroads obtained ownership and later the government purchased it. Under President Nixon in the 1970s, the canal became a National Historic Park.
Siegel and Kirkwood said it’s important for them to know the history of the canal because it’s an integral part of the tour. Each guide prepares their own program when leading the tour, including historical references, using tourists as participants or playing music.
“I did a good month-and-a-half of studying to make up my hour-long program,” Siegel said. “The cool thing about this is that everyone gets to make up their own program. Mine is completely different than anyone else’s. I get the feeling that other people who go to work as tour guides use a script, and we really don’t.”
Siegel, who is a part of the campus band Jukebox The Ghost, formerly known as The Sunday Mail, said he likes to incorporate music into his programs – playing songs like “Shenandoah” and a parody of “The Erie Canal” to make it fit the C & O instead.
“You go over the construction, the plight of the laborers, the operation and the decline of the canal, the railroad,” he said. “I develop it and change it according it to whether I’ve read something new or have some music I wanted to include. If you were giving the same one over and over again you’d get bored to tears.”
Kirkwood, who volunteered for the canal for five to six months before becoming an employee four months ago, agreed and said it’s hard to settle on how you want to run the tour because there is so much you can include that is fascinating.
“You basically have to find a way to squeeze 200 years of history in an hour but still fit in the stories of what they’re seeing – like the turtles on the side, or what the mules are doing,” he said. “If you know the stories, it all comes together.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the tour is that the canal boat is pulled by mules, Kirkwood said, like it would have been in the 1800s. The mules – known as the “beauty queens of the canal” because they are all female – are kept in Great Falls, Va. and driven in a trailer to Georgetown each morning there is a tour.
“We get interns … who’ve never touched a mule or aren’t comfortable walking behind them but everyone warms up to them eventually,” Kirkwood said. “Everyone is very fond of the mules. I took right to them. I thought they were fantastic. I’ve worked with all six mules we have right now – Ida, Ellie, Lil, Ada, Molly and Nell.”
Unfortunately, the canal’s season is coming to an end and usually shuts down from the end of October until the spring. However, Siegel said that there’s an event at the end of the season for Halloween called “Life and Death of the C & O Canal” where the re-enactors go out with a bang.
“It’s an hour-long thing where you walk around and you see these death scenes re-enacted,” he said. “There was like this guy being kicked in the head by a mule and a kid burning to death on a boat. They all happened.”