Europeans began arriving in the Hancock area as early as the 1730s. When the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) came a century later, followed by a toll road on the National Road, followed by the railroads, Hancock boomed between the early 19th and early 20th centuries..
During the Civil War, troops from both sides frequently crossed the river and the C&O Canal. Soldiers traded volleys across the water and skirmished in and near Hancock. Confederates attacked canal boats and trains, destroyed locks, and once tried to take Hancock during a brief winter battle.
From town, walk or bike along the C&O Canal Towpath to explore important sites associated with the Canal and the war. Hancock is also the midway point for the Western Maryland Rail-Trail, and together the two routes offer the perfect round-trip exploration.
Each of the two options below takes you about 11 miles east or west from Hancock along the Towpath, with return via the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. Allow most of the day to explore in either direction.
East on the C&O, from Hancock to Fort Frederick
Miles represent Towpath mileage.
Mile 124.1 Hancock
Park in the lot between Williams Street and Taney Street.
Alternatively, park at the south end of Church Street along the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. From here, look up the hill toward St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. There on Orrick’s Hill, and from Main Street, Union troops defended the town in the Battle of Hancock on January 5–6, 1862. During the brief skirmish, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops advanced on Hancock in an effort to take control of the Potomac River and the Canal. The battle was the first of Jackson’s Romney Campaign.
The day before the shelling began, Jackson sent his cavalry commander Turner Ashby under a truce flag to try to persuade Gen. F.W. Lander to surrender the town. Lander refused. Only an estimated 75 to 100 shots were fired, the cold, wintry weather being a major factor. The Union maintained control of the town but St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church was badly damaged, as was the Presbyterian Church on E. Main Street.
Cross the bridge to reach the towpath and head east (left).
Mile 123 Tonoloway Creek Aqueduct
The aqueduct, built between 1835 and 1839, is one of 11 such water-filled bridges along the Canal. Aqueducts carried boats over major creeks that emptied into the Potomac, and some have been rebuilt; Tonoloway, however, isn’t one of them. Stop midway along the aqueduct for a scenic view of the river.
Mile 122.8–6 Bowles House Visitor Center (Locks 51–52)
Just beyond the aqueduct you’ll see the remains of Locks 51 and 52 as well as the Bowles House, now one of the C&O’s historical visitor centers. The foundations of an old lockhouse are also visible near Lock 51.
The stunning Bowles House was originally a one-story home built around 1785 by William Yates. The Yates family lived in the house when the C&O Canal was being built along this stretch in 1839. At least two other families owned the house, and it was occupied until the 1980s. Though the house has seen better days, it remains one of the C&O’s treasures. Two rooms on the ground floor showcase early photographs and the history of both the house and canal. Ask the ranger for a short tour (Memorial Day weekend–October, 9 am–4:30 pm, Fri–Tues.).
Mile 120.6 Little Pool
Look for wildlife in and around this section of ancient river channel.
Mile 118.9 Millstone
During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed in Millstone to protect the canal.
Mile 116.1 Licking Creek Aqueduct
In 1839, the year the canal arrived in Hancock, this single-arched aqueduct was first filled with water. It took two years to build.
Mile 113.8 Big Pool
Big Pool, another section of ancient river channel, was a natural depression when the C&O was built. The C&O Canal Company filled it with water and used it for a turning basin, where—as the name implies—canawlers turned their boats around. You can launch a boat on this small lake from a ramp at Fort Frederick. Watch for wildlife in and around the water.
Mile 112.5 Fort Frederick
The 20-sided wall of Fort Frederick, a National Historic Landmark, was built in the 1750s during the French and Indian War to protect Maryland’s western frontier from attack. Inside the fort today are two reconstructed barracks with reproductions of period artifacts and a museum depicting area history. You’ll also find a visitor center, campground, and nature trails. Living history programs are available throughout the summer.
During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed here to protect the Canal and the B&O Railroad from Confederates.
From the Towpath, cross the bridge and the railroad tracks (use caution) to access the fort. Bike racks are available, as well as snacks and drinks. Hours change seasonally; visit Fort Frederick State Park online for more information.
Return Via the WMDRT
The Cumberland Extension of the Western Maryland Railway arrived in Hancock in December 1904 and was both a passenger and freight line. Today, roughly 23 miles of the abandoned corridor—the Western Maryland Rail-Trail (WMDRT)—are paved for non-motorized recreation. The eastern end of the WMDRT begins just west of Fort Frederick.
You can access the trail from the fort by either heading back along the C&O Canal towpath (signs will guide you to the WMDRT). If you want to take the road, from the entrance of Fort Frederick, turn left on MD 56 (Big Pool Rd.) and go about 1 mile. Follows signs to the parking lot on the left.
At mile 2.7 on the WMDRT you’ll find Park Head Cemetery, with some very old headstones in a tiny burial ground. The route to Hancock follows a wooded corridor, which in places parallels Interstate 70 very closely. If you prefer to continue along the C&O Canal towpath instead, there are a few places were you can take a short trail to the towpath; look for the signs.