Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

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Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.jpg
Map showing the location of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Map showing the location of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Location extending from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown, Washington, DC, USA
Nearest city Washington, D.C.
Coordinates Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.
Area 19,586 acres (7,926 ha)
Established September 23, 1938
Visitors 3,937,504 (in 2011)[1]
Governing body National Park Service
Park map

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park located in the District of Columbia and the states of Maryland and West Virginia. The park was established as a National Monument in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in order to preserve the neglected remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac River along with many of the original canal structures. The canal and towpath trail extends from Georgetown, Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of 184.5 miles (296.9 km), and was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50 on October 23, 2013.[2][3]

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Construction on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (also known as "the Grand Old Ditch" or the "C&O Canal") began in 1828 but was not completed until 1850.[4]:1 Even then, the canal fell far short of its intended destination of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Instead, the canal terminated at Cumberland for a total distance of approximately 184.5 miles. Occasionally there was talk of continuing the canal, e.g. in 1874, an 8.4 mile long tunnel was proposed to go through the Allegheny Mountains,[5] and there was a tunnel built to connect with the Pennsylvania canal.[6] Even though the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) beat the canal to Cumberland, having arrived eight years earlier, the canal was not entirely obsolete. It wasn't until the mid 1870s that through improved technology, specifically with larger locomotives and air brakes, the railroad was able to set rates lower than the canal, sealing its fate.[7]

The C&O Canal operated from 1831 to 1924 and served primarily as a means to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains to Washington D.C.[8]:6 The canal was closed in 1924 in part due to several severe floods that had a devastating impact on the financial condition of the canal.[9]

Federal Government purchases Canal

Work on restoring Lock 16 on the canal in 1939.

In 1938, the abandoned canal was obtained from the B&O Railroad by the United States in exchange for a loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation.[10] The government planned to restore it as a recreation area. Additionally, it was viewed as a project for employment for the jobless during the Great Depression. By 1940, the first 22 miles (35 km) of the canal were repaired and rewatered, from Georgetown to Violettes lock and returned to operating condition.[11] The first Canal Clipper boat, giving mule driven rides, began in 1941.[12] It was later replaced by the John Quincy Adams in the 1960s.

The project was halted when the United States entered World War II and resources were needed elsewhere. In 1941, Harry Athey suggested to President Franklin Roosevelt that the canal could be converted into an underground highway or a bomb shelter with its roof for landing airplanes. The whole idea was deemed impractical due to the river's periodic flooding.[13] In 1942, freshets destroyed the rewatered sections of the canal. National Park Service (NPS) official Arthur E. Demaray pressed that the canal from Dam #1 be restored, to supply water to the Dalecarlia Reservoir in case sabotage or bombing destroyed the normal conduits of water. Since this transformed the canal into a concern of national security, in 1942, the War Production Board approved the work.[14] By 1943, Congress had funded the work, repairs were done, and the Park Service resumed boat trips in October 1943.[15]

File:Cumberland Basin looking North.jpg
The Cumberland basin at the canal's terminus in 2013. This area has been changed drastically and is almost unrecognizable compared to how it was during the canal's operating days

The Congress expressed interest in developing the canal and towpath as a parkway. Because of the flooding from the 1920s to the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building 14 dams, that would have permanently inundated 74 miles of towpath, as well as the Monocacy and Antietam aqueducts.[16] Around 1945, the Corps wanted to remove Dam #8, which would destroy any hope of rewatering the canal above Dam #5, as well as put a levee around in the Cumberland area. Much of this was done, with the NPS cooperating with the Corps, since maintaining an operating canal all the way to Cumberland was too expensive, as well as wanting to preserve the western parts of the canal.[17]

Creation of the national park

The Douglas Hike

The idea of turning the canal over to automobiles was opposed by some, including United States Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas. In March 1954, Douglas led an eight-day hike of the towpath from Cumberland to D.C.[10] Although 58 people participated in one part of the hike or another, only nine men, including Douglas, hiked the full 184.5 miles (297 km). Following this hike, Justice Douglas formed a committee, later to be known as the C&O Canal Association in 1957, which would draft plans to preserve and protect the Canal.[18] Serving as the chairman of this group, his commitment to the park proved successful.

National Monument, then National Park

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower made the canal a National Monument under the Antiquities Act, but that hardened the opposition to making the canal a national park. There was some support for making the Potomac River a national river instead.[19] Within ten years, the political climate had changed, and realizing that the national river plan was unsupportable, the idea of turning the canal into a historic park had little opposition. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act [20] established the canal as a National Historical Park and President Richard Nixon signed it into law on January 8, 1971.[19][21]

Floods of 1996

Summer Flooding before and after in 1996

The winter and summer of 1996 saw two separate floods. Following a blizzard in January, heavy rains washed away the snow and caused extreme flooding and run-off. This major winter flood swept across 80 to 90 percent of the canal and towpath, causing high waters, along with the adjacent Potomac River. Erosion due to the floods lead to heavy damages to the towpath and much of the infrastructure of the canal and park. Following the winter flood, there was an overwhelming need for volunteers in response to the damages caused. Unfortunately, in September, Hurricane Fran caused even more damage to the canal in multiple parts, requiring workers and volunteers to restore and reconstruct the towpath and re-water the canal, several major projects that would take an large amount of time and money to complete.[22]

Restoration efforts

Today, several organizations work to preserve and restore the park’s beauty and history. The C&O Canal Trust,[23] founded in 2007, is the official non-profit partner of the National Park Service. The C&O Canal Association [24] is an all-volunteer citizens organization established in 1954 to help conserve of the natural and historical environment of the C&O Canal and the Potomac River Basin. Together they are making progress in restoration efforts of Canal infrastructure, fixing eroded sections of the towpath and re-watering sections of the Canal to keep it beautiful for both visitors and wildlife, as well as educating the community on the Canal’s rich history in interactive ways at the six different visitor centers along the canal: Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, Brunswick, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland, operated by the National Park Service and its rangers.[25]


The canal begins at its zero mile marker (accessible only via Thompson's Boat House), directly on the Potomac, opposite the Watergate complex. Author John Kelly, writing for the Washington Post in 2004, suggested that the name of the Watergate complex may derive from its location directly adjacent to the zero milepost of canal, where to this day, the canal's large wooden gate sits directly on the Potomac and adjacent to the complex.[26] Kelly wrote, a canal lock is "quite literally, a water gate." [26][27]

Varied in its geography, the canal and its towpath along with the adjacent Potomac offers activities including running, hiking, biking, fishing, boating and kayaking, as well as rock climbing in certain locations. A small portion of the towpath near Harpers Ferry National Historical Park doubles as a section of the Appalachian Trail, and the Canal also offers a variety of wildlife and birdwatching opportunities.

The park offers rides on two reproduction canal boats, the Georgetown and the Charles F. Mercer, (named after the first president of the Canal corporation, and not the first boat on the canal named Charles F. Mercer.) during the spring, summer and autumn. The boats are pulled by mules, and park rangers in historical dress work the locks and boat while presenting a historical program. Presently the park includes nearly 20,000 acres (80 km²) and receives over four million recorded visits each year.[28] Flooding continues to threaten historical structures on the canal and attempts at restoration. The Park Service has re-watered portions of the canal, but the majority of the canal does not have water in it.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park now receives more than five million recreation visits annually.[29] The NPS visitor centers have displays and interpretive exhibits on the history of the canal.

In Allegany County, Maryland, the park includes the Western Maryland Railroad Right-of-Way, Milepost 126 to Milepost 160, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.[30][31]

In January 2015, the National Park Service proposed adding entrance fees to virtually all access points along the towpath. In February, amid backlash from communities along the canal, the proposal was rescinded.[32]

Hiker biker campsites

The NPS maintains a number of hiker/biker campsites along the towpath, which have a water pump, picnic area, firepit, and latrine. These are available on a first come first served basis, and are about every 12 miles or so along the towpath. Here is a list of them (data from NPS):[33]

Towpath Mileage Name Comments
16.6 Swains Lock Last free campsite
30.5 Chisel Branch
34.4 Turtle Run
38.2 Marble Quarry
42.5 Indian Flats
47.6 Calico Rocks
50.2 Bald Eagle Island
59.44 Permanently closed Former Blue Ridge campsite.
62.9 Huckleberry Hill
75.29 Killiansburg Cave
79.68 Horseshoe Bend
82.46 Big Woods
90.9 Opequon Junction
95.2 Cumberland Valley
101.28 Jordan Junction
110.0 North Mountain
116.0 Licking Creek Aqueduct
120.6 Little Pool
126.4 White Rock
129.9 Leopards Mill
133.6 Cacapon Junction
139.2 Indigo Neck
144.5 Devils Alley
149.4 Stickpile Hill
154.1 Sorrel Ridge
157.4 Purslane Run
162.1 Town Creek
164.8 Potomac Forks
169.1 Pigman's Ferry
175.3 Irons Mountain
180.1 Evitts Creek


Gallery starts at Georgetown and goes upstream to Cumberland, Maryland.

See also


  1. "National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics". National Park Service. Retrieved October 5, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Vitale, Marty (October 28, 2013). "Meeting Minutes for October 17, 2013, and Report to SCOH October 18, 2013 (Addendum October 28, 2013)" (PDF). Denver, Colorado: Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Retrieved June 9, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "New U.S. Bicycle Routes Approved in Maryland and Tennessee". Missoula, Montana: Adventure Cycling Association. 2013-11-05. Retrieved 2013-11-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Mackintosh, Barry (1991). C&O Canal: The Making of A Park. Washington, DC: National Park Service, Department of the Interior.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Hahn, Pathway. 257
  6. Davies, William E. (1999). The Geology and Engineering Structures of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal: An Engineering Geologist’s Descriptions and Drawings (PDF). Glen Echo, Md.: C&O Canal Association. Retrieved 2014-07-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. ix. Davies does not indicate if this tunnel was ever used, nor its location.
  7. Davies, p. ix
  8. Hahn, Thomas (1984). The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal: Pathway to the Nation's Capital. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-1732-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. National Park Service. "Canal Operations". Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. Retrieved 2010-05-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lynch, John A. "Justice Douglas, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and Maryland Legal History". University of Baltimore Law Forum. 35 (Spring 2005): 104–125.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Shaffer p. 71
  12. "CHAPTER TEN: USING THE PARK". Archived from the original on 2013-06-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Shaffer, p. 70
  14. Shaffer p. 73
  15. Shaffer p. 76
  16. Shaffer p. 78
  17. Shaffer p. 79
  18. "Associate Justice William O.Douglas". National Park Service. Retrieved 29 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 "The Battle to Save the Canal, Part V (from December 2011 Along The Towpath)" (PDF). Retrieved 27 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act, Pub.L. 91–664, January 8, 1971.
  21. "16 USC Chapter 1, Subchapter LVI: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park". Office of Law Revision Council. Retrieved 29 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Teams Assess C&O Canal Damage On the Potomac: Last Weekend's Floods Washed out Sections of the Historic Park's Towpath and Walkways. Many Areas Will Be Closed Indefinitely". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "The C&O Canal Trust: About Us". C&O Canal Trust. Retrieved 29 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "About the C&O Canal Association". C&O Canal Association. Retrieved 5 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Plan Your Visit". NPS. Retrieved 28 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. 26.0 26.1 Kelly, John. "Answer Man: A Gate to Summers Past." The Washington Post. December 13, 2004.
  27. Moeller, Gerard Martin and Weeks, Christopher. AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. 4th ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8018-8468-3
  28. "National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics". National Park Service. Retrieved March 29, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Annual Park Recreation Visitation (1904 - Last Calendar Year)". NPS. Retrieved 23 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Staff (2008-04-15). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Maryland Historical Trust". National Register of Historic Places: Western Maryland Railroad Right-of-Way, Milepost 126 to Milepost 160. Maryland Historical Trust. 2008-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Park service rescinds C&O Canal entrance fee proposal". The Journal. February 6, 2015. Retrieved February 11, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. "park Planner" (PDF). NPS. National Park Service, Dept of the Interior. 2014-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Hahn, Thomas F. Swiftwater (1993). Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal: Georgetown Tidelock to Cumberland, Revised Combined Edition. Shepherdstown, WV: American Canal and Transportation Center. ISBN 0-933788-66-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 24

External links