The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is one of 358 units of the national park system at this writing. The historic C & O Canal is its primary feature, justifying its designation as a historical park. But hikers and bicyclists along the 184.5-mile canal towpath are at least as likely to marvel at the park's natural resources and scenic beauty and enjoy their physical activity as they are to appreciate the canal's history. No other single resource in the system combines such outstanding historical, natural, and recreational values to a greater degree.
The canal was built and operated as a commercial transportation artery between 1828 and 1924. Other historians, notably Walter S. Sanderlin in The Great National Project and Harlan D. Unrau in an unpublished National Park Service study, have addressed this period in scholarly detail, and the Park Service is publishing a concise popular account of it, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (Official National Park Handbook No. 142), in 1991. The present history contains only the barest summary of the canal's construction and commercial operation. It focuses instead on how the defunct waterwaya financial failurewas adapted to serve a public purpose never envisioned by its builders. Adaptive reuse, a favored technique for saving obsolete historic structures, has never been practiced on a larger scale nor more successfully than in this instance.
This saga of the canal's reincarnation as a park owes much to many Park Service employees and park friends. Past and present employees contributing recollections and other information included Robert W. Bell, John Blair, Michael Brown, William Clark, Harry A. DeLashmutt III, William R. Failor, Raymond L. Freeman, Gordon Gay, George H. Hicks, Thomas O. Hobbs, F. Ross Holland, Jr., W. Dean McClanahan, Richard G. O'Guin, John G. Parsons, David A. Ritchie, David M. Sherman, Richard L. Stanton, Lee Struble, Linda Toms, and Conrad L. Wirth. Outside park supporters doing likewise included William E. Davies, John C. Frye, Gilbert M. Gude, Carrie Johnson, Nancy C. Long, and Joan Paull. James D. Young, the park's resource manager in 1974-1976 and assistant superintendent from 1977 to 1991, was particularly helpful in responding patiently to innumerable research requests.
This history would not have been written without the support of Edwin C. Bearss, the indefatigable chief historian of the National Park Service.
It would not have merited publication without the editorial assistance of Gay Mackintosh, the sharp-eyed spouse of the author. A special thanks to both.
Last Updated: 11-Oct-2004