C & O Canal Towpath

 

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal: Foundry Branch to Cumberland, MD

The hikes in this section follow the towpath within the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The 184.5-mile linear park preserves many layers of resources and interprets the role of canals in America's westward expansion. Work began in 1828 with the goal of connecting Georgetown and the Forks of the Ohio in Pittsburgh. Obsolete before it was completed in 1850, the Canal nonetheless played an important role the nation's history and operated sporadically until 1924.

Nearly as amazing as the task of building the canal is the success in preserving it. In the 1950s a planned parkway running the length of the C&O Canal had wide public support. Yet somehow a band of caring citizens made the case to save it. The help they received from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas is now itself part of conservation history.

Had the highway been built, surely the landscape along the Potomac would be dramatically different today. And had the effort to preserve the canal come only 20 years later, it would have been hard-pressed to keep ahead of the rapid growth the region has undergone.

The heritage celebrated along the C&O Canal runs deeper than the canal itself. Glen Echo Park began in 1891 as a National Chautauqua Assembly, an education organization whose mission was to prepare people for citizenship, for an appreciation of the arts and literature and for professional life. A decade later Glen Echo was serving a growing city as a popular amusement park, and operated until 1968. Today the park offers art education programs.

This segment of trail also passes the Clara Barton National Historic Site, early headquarters of the American Red Cross and home to its founder Clara Barton. The formation of the Red Cross marks an important chapter in American history as one of the first international efforts in which the U.S. became deeply involved. So while the C&O Canal presents the story of the country growing westward, it also tells dozens of other stories on its way.

Decades before the national park was created, hikers appreciated the natural beauty of the narrow greenway created by the Canal property. As the city of Washington has grown into a major metropolis, the Canal corridor has become an even greater environmental resource. Few of the world's big rivers are followed so closely over so many miles by trail. Few rivers have so many access points for putting in and taking out watercraft.

The Towpath climbs from tidewater through the Piedmont and into the northern Blue Ridge at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The Piedmont was the original breadbasket for the United States, known for wheat production the way we now think of the Midwest. It also marks the third historical period explored by a PHT segment on this side of the river: the first period traces early settlement in the lower Potomac, and the second follows the Civil War in Washington, D.C. In the Piedmont, the Towpath tells the story of the agrarian small-town era in which the rural economy was linked to Washington—culturally a world away.

The final miles of the segment leave the Piedmont to travel within the Catoctin and Blue Ridge mountains. The terrain surrounding the trail is rugged and dramatic. And the American story on the land is less about farming and more about minerals and early manufacturing. The wooded slopes seen today are second and third growth forests. The first wave of cutting leveled entire mountainsides to fuel coke furnaces that provided fuel for nearby mills and munitions plants in Harpers Ferry. Later, recovering woods were thinned and cleared for pasture, as the middle Potomac was transformed into the region's dairyland.

Of all the forces of change affecting both sides of the river from the US Route 15 crossing near Point of Rocks, to Harpers Ferry, perhaps none has been as powerful as the opening of Dulles International Airport in 1962. The airport and the emergence of Washington, D.C. as a major metropolis, along with federal agricultural subsidies that, unintentionally, have favored Midwest industrial farming over local family farms, put in motion a transition that continues today.

 

Resources

AMTRAK
800-872-7245

Antietam National Battlefield
301-423-5124

Bill's Place
301-478-2828

Fort Frederick State Park
301-842-2155

Green Ridge State Forest
301-478-3124

Greyhound
800-231-2222

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad
1-800-TRAIN 50

Frederick County Tourism Council

Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Allegheny County Tourism Department

Harpers Ferry NHP

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP

MARC (Commuter Train)
800-325-7245

Poole's Store
301-948-5372

Seneca Greenway

Last updated: May 22, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Potomac Heritage NST Office
P. O. Box B

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Phone:

(304) 535-4014

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