Down the Paw Paw without My Ma-Ma

Down the Paw Paw without My Ma-Ma

"Tubing...tubing...tubing on the river."

About the Paw Paw Tunnel

Potomac River, West Virginia - Paw Paw bendsThe Paw Paw Tunnel is a 3,118-foot long canal tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Located near Paw Paw, West Virginia, it was built to bypass the bends – a sinuous stretch of the Potomac River. While the river makes a series of gargantuan loops, the tunnel route cutting across one large double loop is much more direct and was conceived to improve the flow of commerce on the canal. The town, the river bends and the tunnel take their name from the pawpaw trees that grow throughout the area. Construction on the tunnel began in 1836 but the construction company seriously underestimated the difficulty of the job. Violence frequently broke out between various gangs of immigrant laborers of different ethnicities and wages were often unpaid, due to the company's financial problems. The tunnel took 14 years to complete; a delay that doomed the canal to obsolescence (in favor of the railroad). Even so, it ranks among the world's longest canal tunnels and is one of the greatest engineering feats of its day.

Taking the Plunge

The Potomac River and the C&O Canal are perfect destinations for a rambunctious group of boy scouts. In the summer of '96, we sponsored a service project along this section of the tow path. Scouts, riding in the back of a few pickup trucks, spent a warm day in June cutting overhanging tree branches along a few miles of the canal towpath. We filled trucks with the downed limbs and were rewarded with service pins by the local park ranger. With this pleasant outing in mind, it seemed like a 'no-brainer' when our Scoutmaster brought us back, in August, for a leisurely inner-tube ride down this stretch of the meandering river. On a sunny afternoon, 11 scouts and three adult leaders (one of whom spoke only French) dropped into the Potomac on the West Virginia shore. The three other adults met them for lunch on the Maryland side of the river, fed them all and wished them 'happy trails' on their float down the Potomac, to the take out point downstream. We 'leaders of the pack' hiked a mile or two down the canal towpath and waited on the sunny rocks, expecting the lads in a couple of hours. The plan seemed basic but as the saying goes, If you make a plan idiot proof, the world will invent a better idiot to carry it out. In this case, everyone involved qualified. With six adult leaders (Neal, Pierre, Steve, Claude, Peter and Tim) in charge, no one seemed to remember the map. "Tubing...tubing...tubing on the river."