A Long Stretch of History ... and Recreation. (Great Parks: The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park)

Parks & Recreation, May 2003 | Go to article overview

A Long Stretch of History ... and Recreation. (Great Parks: The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park)


The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park must be one of the oddest-shaped parks in the country. Running 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C., in some places it's no more than several feet wide. Its thread-like shape notwithstanding, for more than three decades it's been among the most popular recreation sites in the Washington, D.C. area.

The park gets its shape, of course, from the canal's original purpose as a shipping route. The C&O Canal was just one of the dozens of canals built on the East Coast during the first half of the 19th century. Teams of mules, averaging just 2 miles per hour along the canal's towpath, pulled barges designed especially for traversing the shallow canal and filled with coal and other commodities. Seventy-four locks, 11 aqueducts and other engineering feats allowed smooth passage from the mountains of Western Maryland to the flatlands. (The canal drops 600 feet from Cumberland to its other end.)

Unhappy History

The canal as a commercial enterprise was doomed from the start. The idea seemed solid--create an overland route linking the Eastern seaboard, via the Potomac River, with what was then the West, the Ohio Valley country--but logistics proved nettlesome. A survey in the early 1820s put the cost at $22 million, and there were endless squabbles about who should pay what, where the canal should start and other non-insignificant details.

Work began on July 4, 1828, on a 350-mile route that would go from Washington to Cumberland, then on to Pittsburgh, Pa. President John Quincy Adams gave a speech and grabbed a spade to ceremoniously mark the groundbreaking. He struck a root, and had to make two more attempts. On the same day, ground was broken 40 miles away in Baltimore, Md., for the B&O Railroad. By the time the canal reached Cumberland in 1850, years behind schedule and millions over budget, the railroad, which paralleled the towpath in many places, had largely doomed it to commercial irrelevance. (Trains, after all, tend to go faster than boats pulled by mules.) The second segment, from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, was quietly forgotten. After a brief profitable spell following the Civil War, the canal slid into increasing debt. Its caretakers closed it for good in 1924 after yet another flood did too-costly damage to its infrastructure.

After the flood ended commercial activity on the canal, its owner--by then, ironically, the same B&O Railroad that had helped to strangle it during the previous century--looked on with disapproval as talk of creating a highway along the route sprouted. The talk increased significantly when the federal government bought the canal from the railroad in 1938. By the early 1950s, the proposed roadway had morphed into a scenic parkway, an idea that The Washington Post endorsed in a 1954 editorial.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas dissented. "I wish the man who wrote your editorial ... approving the parkway would take time off and come with me ... I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched," he wrote to the Post in January 1954. Two months later, Douglas, two Post editors and 34 others set out to traverse the towpath in eight days. Only nine--including Douglas but no ink-stained wretches--completed the trek, but the hike brought enough good publicity that the Post changed its mind. The parkway scheme was quashed. In 1971, President Nixon made the canal a national historical park.

The Path to Recreation

According to the National Park Service, the park hosts millions of visitors each year. The 14-mile eastern end of the canal, from Great Falls to Georgetown and mere minutes from the densely populated Washington suburbs, is by far the most popular stretch. In My Wilderness: East to Katahdin, Justice Douglas eloquently explained why: "The din of the city, the roar of its traffic, was behind me .

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