Lesson Plan

The C&O Canal, A Place of Refuge, Recreation, and Reflection: grade 4

A photograph of the towpath and C&O Canal.
Justice Douglas called the canal a refuge and a sanctuary

courtesy of Jesse Orth

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade
Civic Engagement, History, Transportation
3 days
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
indoors or outdoors
National/State Standards:
Common Core, English Language Arts
Reading Literature and Informational Texts: RI.4.1, RI.4.2, RI.4.3
Writing: W.4.1 W.4.1a, W.4.1b, W.4.1c, W.4.1d


Years after boats carrying goods ceased floating down the canal, one man would take a stand to save this national treasure from development and destruction. This man, Justice William O. Douglas, recognized that the C&O Canal offered a place of refuge, recreation and reflection to all who took the opportunity to just “take a walk.” In this lesson, students take a walk with Justice Douglas and think about what they would do if a place they loved was threatened with development.


Enduring Understanding

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park provides educational and recreational opportunities to individuals, students and families who visit.  

Essential Question

In what ways does visiting the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park change my understanding of how I can connect with nature and our community's history?

Content Objective/Outcomes

The students will:
1) Describe how and why the C&O Canal is an important part of Maryland and our nation's history,
2) Describe the role of Justice William O. Douglas in preserving the C&O Canal for future generations, 
3) Analyze both primary and secondary sources as well as historical and contemporary photographs to gain multiple perspectives about historical events.

Literacy Objective/Outcomes

The students will:
1) Summarize information from a variety of sources on Justice William O. Douglas's mission to save the C&O Canal from development and destruction,
2) Use evidence from text to make and support decisions about important topics,
3) Write articulately and precisely to describe real world problems and persuade others to take action on implementing solutions.


The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal winds its way through Maryland along the north shore of the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown, Washington D.C. From its groundbreaking on July 4, 1828, "The Great National Project" would test the innovativeness, adaptability and determination of the men who planned, built, worked and lived on the Canal. Despite the trials and tribulations encountered during its construction and operation, the C&O Canal thrived for almost a hundred years as a water route transporting goods such as coal, bricks and iron between the Appalachian Mountain Region and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Today, the C&O Canal provides opportunities for all who visit to learn about the transportation heritage of a bygone era, the power of human ingenuity, the role of change and adaptability in life's daily struggle, and the importance of seeking one's own personal place of refuge, recreation and reflection. 

In this learning experience, students learn about how one man's determination to save the C&O Canal from development and destruction led to the creation of a National Historical Park. Students will also learn that nature speaks to all of us in some way and that it is critical that we take a few moments in our lives to enjoy the amazing places that surround us. Students will learn that the C&O Canal offers all visitors a chance to appreciate our past while simultaneously consider the prospects of our future. Most importantly, through this learning experience students will understand how the decisions we make can have a lasting impact.


The materials for this lesson include primary source materials such as photographs and a letter to The Washington Post by Justice Douglas, secondary source materials describing Justice Douglas's walk to preserve the C&O Canal, a Dilemma Resolution Accord worksheet for students, and a Shared Rubric assessment tool.  



Use the "Shared Inquiry Rubric" (See printable lesson guide for a template) to keep track of all students that participate in the discussion and assess the depth/complexity of their thoughts/ideas.

Park Connections

Self-guided visit to the C&O Canal

Before students begin their walk on the towpath, show them two photographs of the C&O Canal – one historic and one contemporary. Remind students of Justice William O. Douglas's walk to save the canal so that all who visit could have a place of refuge, recreation and reflection. Also tell students of the famous words that created our first National Park, Yellowstone: "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people." As they walk, have students record in a notebook and/or with photographs, things that they noticed that speak to why the canal is such a special place and why William O. Douglas fought so hard to save the canal from development and destruction. After returning to the starting point, have students share their observations and discuss how the quote "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people" also fits the C&O Canal.    


After completing the site visit to the C&O Canal, have students identify and research a problem in their own community that needs to be resolved. Have students write a persuasive/argument piece that offers logical and reasonable solutions to be problem as well as encourages others to take action to resolve the dilemma

Additional Resources

Click here to view the 45-minute movie by Ken Burn's called "This is America," which gives more examples of ordinary citizens working to preserve America's special places.


canal, towpath, refuge, lobby, debate

Last updated: December 1, 2015