Hiking the C&O Canal Towpath: History

September 2016: backpacking trip, thru-hike of the 184.5-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath (note: originally posted on 9/6/2016)

First, some history of the hike: as my friend and hiking companion Max tells it, a couple of years ago, he made a New Year’s resolution to hike from Pittsburgh to DC. He made a bet with his friend Jules that he would do it by the end of the year. The year passed, but Jules gave extensions. Then I heard of the challenge, and offered to join the hike, but for a shorter span: the 184.5-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, over half of the distance to Pittsburgh (the rest is the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage). We decided to hike in the early fall of 2016 and the planning commenced, with a great deal of help from my backpacking mentor, my dad. And as an added bonus, we’re hiking a National Historic Park in the centennial year of the National Park Service!

But why is this canal a national historic park? Well, let me enlighten you with knowledge that I gained from the National Park Service. The C&O Canal first started as the Potowmack Canal, which was the brainchild of George Washington, who proposed the idea as a way to facilitate shipping to and from the western frontier (which at the time was around Ohio) along the not-so-easy-to-navigate west-to-east-flowing Potomac River. He first proposed it in 1774, but the state of Maryland rejected it – he proposed it a decade later after becoming a national hero and the state of Maryland thought it was a wonderful idea. So the canal was constructed: not a completely separate canal but a series of detours around the unnavigable parts of the Potomac, like Great Falls – the detour around which required a series of locks that were considered engineering marvels for the time. And that time was 1802, when construction was completed. The Potomack Canal Company operated the canal until 1828, at which point the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company took over, with the aim of constructing a completely separate canal that negated the need for boats to ever traverse the Potomac River. As its name indicates, it was also intended to connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, but that goal was never realized.

None other than President John Quincy Adams broke ground on the C&O Canal on July 4th, 1828. And it was a busy Independence Day for not far away, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad also broke ground. The construction was finally completed in 1850 at a final cost of $11 million (about $320 million in 2016 dollars). It didn’t reach the Ohio River, but it did stretch 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. And even though the canal didn’t reach its planned length, it did pretty well transporting materials from whiskey to coal and in its peak year – 1871 – it saw 850,000 tons of goods and sometimes over 500 boats simultaneously traversing the canal. After that heyday, however, a series of major floods and economic misfortunes put the C&O Canal Company in a bad way, and in stepped the B&O Railroad to buy the majority of their bonds. Whether cleverly or mischievously, the B&O then progressively captured the C&O’s traffic until a major flood in 1924, at which point (surprise, surprise) there were no repairs made and the C&O Canal shut down as a trade route for good.

The story has a happy ending for the canal, however, as the B&O Railroad sold it to the government for $2 million in 1938 (about $32 million in 2016 dollars), after which the government made repairs, declared it a national monument in 1961 and then made it a national historic park in 1971.

So there you have it. The first canal project in the country giving way to the first major railroad in the country, and retiring into the care of the National Park Service. And now Max and I will be hiking the towpath that the mules used to trek as they towed the boats, and camping not far from where the canal keepers used to sleep.

All of the information about the C&O Canal’s history is from the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans.

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