Since moving to Maryland two months ago, I have discovered the secret to weight loss and mental relaxation. Better than a pill and it’s free! That’s right, I’ve been riding my bicycle on the towpath of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. What’s really sad (on my part) is that I had not heard of this opportunity before I started looking into moving to Maryland. It seems that the C&O Canal is a secret kept from the rest of the country outside of the Potomac River Valley.
For an excellent history of the area and a step-by-step guide to what you'll see along the towpath trail, check out The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High.
George Washington’s life-long dream was to open up the length of the Potomac River to navigation. The aim at first was to link his home in Mount Vernon with his land holdings in the Ohio country. However, the Revolution was his first distraction. After the war, Washington participated in the Patomack Company, whose goals were to build skirting canals around the several falls on the river. His next distraction was the call to serve as first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. During his presidency, Washington added to the development of the Potomac River corridor by ordering the construction of both a Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry and the new capital city near Georgetown that would bear his name.
Washington died in 1799, but the work of the Patomack Company continued with additional funding from both Maryland and Virginia. The several skirting canals at Little Falls, Great Falls, and the Harpers Ferry area were completed by 1802. However, due to floods and high water part of the year, versus drought and low water in other parts of the year, the Potomac was only navigable for a few months out of the year. Additionally, Harpers Ferry was a long way from the Ohio.
The opening of the Erie Canal in New York State in 1825 was a modern marvel. Business in the lower Potomac Valley needed a better means of transportation to the Ohio. In order to make Georgetown a port city to rival New York, Maryland and Virginia needed a canal of their own. Unable to secure government funding, a private company, the Chesapeake and Ohio canal company was formed to take on the project. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 4, 1828 to begin digging a canal the whole length of the Potomac from Georgetown. As it happened, on the same day in Baltimore a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, also headed for the Ohio.
Overcoming legal issues, funding problems, and construction challenges, the C&O canal made it to Cumberland, Maryland (at the “top” of the Appalachians) and formally opened on October 10, 1850. To create this manufactured river, the canal consisted of a complex system of feeder dams, lift locks, and aqueducts. The canal covers 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland and an elevation difference of 605 feet. It took canal boats, pulled by mules walking the adjacent towpath, a week to travel the canal one way. The canal was already outdated technology when it opened, as the B&O Railroad had beaten them through the Appalachians by close to a decade.
Although the canal was never an extremely profitable endeavor, it operated commercially for nearly 75 years. The C&O canal survived the Civil War, economic downturns, and a number of floods over the years. By the flood of 1924, it was determined that it was not cost effective to repair the canal further. The federal government purchased the canal, then owned by the B&O Railroad, in 1938. It was the depression years, and the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work on repairing the structures along the canal. Nevertheless, after the end of the depression and World War II, the government wasn’t sure what to do with the canal.
By the 1950s, there were a number of ideas of what kind of development should take place along the north side of the Potomac. One of the most popular ideas was to create a motor parkway along the route of the towpath so people could see the beauty of the river all the way to Cumberland. Lucky for us today, in 1954 the canal had a champion in the form of Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Largely due to his efforts, we get to walk or bike the towpath today in peace and quiet, rather than share it with cars.
Justice Douglas was an avid outdoorsman who worked to save the environment and the natural state of rivers. When in Washington, D.C., he would hike along the canal, stating that he “was grateful that an accident of history created a continuous strip of park land along one of America’s most beautiful rivers.” In March of 1954, Justice Douglas led a group of conservationists and reporters on a hike of the entire 184.5 miles of towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown.
Although Justice Douglas’ walk didn’t resolve the issue of what to make out of the canal immediately, the event did publicize the effort to preserve the canal. On January 8, 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the law that designated the C&O Canal a National Historical Park (NHP). Today, the National Park Service maintains the towpath trail and restores the structures along the canal. They not only maintain the physical structure of the park, but also interpret the history of the canal through five visitor centers for an estimated 3.8 million visitors a year.
Visitor Centers are located at Georgetown, Great Falls, Brunswick, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland, Maryland. There are also numerous access points along the canal that range from a small gravel parking area to a larger paved parking lot with restroom facilities. Costumed interpreters and canal boat rides are available during the summer months at the Georgetown and Great Falls Visitors Centers. Anywhere on the length of the canal are excellent opportunities for walking, running, or bicycling. The towpath is packed gravel with a marker at each mile.
We now live about three miles from the Williamsport Visitors Center, which is at about mile 99.7, considered roughly the midpoint of the canal. We enjoy this park so much that a conservative estimate would be that we’ve been on the towpath, either walking Sydney (our cattle dog) or riding bicycles, four days a week for the last two months. The family has been to the visitors centers at Cumberland (mile 184.5), Hancock (124), and Brunswick (54). I’ve ridden my mountain bike from Hancock to Harpers Ferry (mile 60). Some of those sections I’ve been on several times. And the best news of all is that I’ve lost over 20 pounds in the last two months.
Besides the exercise and the solitude, I enjoy the history that you find all along the canal towpath. Along with the structures of old mills and lock houses, I like to scout the crossing points along the river used during the Civil War. My goal is to walk or ride my bike over every mile of the canal. I’ve met several people on my bike rides that share the same goal. I have not yet visited Georgetown or Great Falls, but I understand it can get crowed there in the summer months. I like the less populated areas of the canal. A mile or so from an access point and you are in a world all of your own: just you, the river, the forest, and the history.
For more information on the C&O Canal NHP and its history, visit the park’s website at http://www.nps.gov/choh/. The Western Maryland Historical Library Project has digitized historical maps and photos online at http://www.whilbr.org/candocanal/index.aspx. Or check out the book The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High (John Hopkins University Press, 2001) for mile by mile descriptions and an excellent history of the Potomac River valley.