June 17, 1998

I want you to take a trip with me -- 42 miles northwest of Washington and 170 years back in time. People, commerce and ideas were beginning to move westward, and a grand system of canals, envisioned by President George Washington, was under construction.

In the days before the railroads, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was designed to bypass the rapids of the Potomac River and move goods cheaply and efficiently from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. According to one expert, the construction of the C&O Canal was "a typical American heroic enterprise."

Along the way, a series of challenges faced engineers, including how to carry barges across the 11 major intersecting tributaries that drain into the Potomac River. The solution was a system of aqueducts.

At Mile 42, workers constructed the largest -- the Monocacy Aqueduct. Essentially a 516-foot bridge over the river, the aqueduct carried the canal in a flume-like trough supported by seven graceful arches. Mules dragging the barges walked along a towpath by the canal. The Monocacy Aqueduct is now considered to be one of the finest canal structures in the United States.

Hundreds of manual laborers, many of them Irish and Welsh immigrants, hauled heavy stone blocks from nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain to build the aqueduct, which took five years to complete. During the Civil War, Confederate troops tried to dynamite it to stop the movement of Northern soldiers, but they were unable to penetrate the dense stone.

Mother Nature, though, has posed a graver threat. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes tore away much of the coping stone and railing, necessitating a "temporary fix" -- an unsightly harness of steel beams and timbers that now encases and obscures the structure. Another serious flood could wash it away completely.

If the Monocacy Aqueduct falls, we will lose not only an important architectural and engineering landmark but also an important link to our past.

Thanks in large measure to the leadership of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the beauty of the C&O Canal was preserved for all Americans in 1971 when it became a National Historical Park. In much the same manner, private citizens led by former Maryland Rep. Gilbert Gude and the C&O Canal Association are working today with the Park Service to raise the funds, both from private and public sources, necessary to preserve the aqueduct.

On Monday, I visited the Monocacy Aqueduct, where Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced the Trust's 1998 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Like the Monocacy Aqueduct, these are places that, if lost, would take a piece of our history with them. They include America's historically black colleges and universities, where many future civil rights leaders were educated, and the Great Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, Maine, a symbol of that state's once-flourishing paper industry.

The Chancellorsville Battlefield in Virginia, where Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own troops, also made the list, as did the historic lighthouses of Michigan and courthouses of Texas. In Colorado, the Trust has named the mining towns of Black Hawk and Central City and the Mesa Verde National Park, with its collection of pre-Columbian cliff dwellings. The architecturally significant art-deco Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nev., is on the list, as is Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif., which was immortalized by John Steinbeck.

As Richard Moe said, "America's historic treasures are a non-renewable resource. Once they are gone, they are gone for good."

That's why the President has called on all Americans to participate in a nationwide effort to "Save Our Treasures" -- "so that generations of the 21st century can see for themselves the images and words that are the old and continuing glory of America."

As we begin our celebration of the new Millennium, I hope all Americans will look for the history in their own back yards. Picture the America we want to leave our children. Is it an America they learn about only in history books? Or is it an America that cares enough about its proud heritage to preserve its great canals and battlefields?

Next month, I'll be visiting more American treasures -- from the Star-Spangled Banner here in Washington to Thomas Edison's Invention Factory in West Orange, N.J. The President has asked Congress for funding to help preserve these irreplaceable artifacts and landmarks. In addition, private citizens, corporations and foundations have already offered to contribute.

Safeguarding our heritage is not only about preserving our past. It's also about preserving our future by leaving the symbols of this great country -- symbols such as the Monocacy Aqueduct -- intact for our children and our grandchildren.