“To subdue the earth”—this was the “pre-eminent” purpose of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, said President John Quincy Adams as he wielded a shovel at groundbreaking ceremonies in 1828.
The earth delivered a quick rebuff. Adams’ shovel bent several times before he could pry a single symbolic scoop free from the rocky soil.
The glitch foretold the future of the canal, which failed to subdue the earth. Yet in the end, it serves to highlight the region’s natural treasures.
From the outset, the canal was built and operated under a barrage of difficulties, including the natural elements the president had hoped to master. Foremost among them was the intractable Potomac River.
“The reason the canal is here is the river, and the river is the reason the canal is no longer operating,” said National Park Service Ranger Warren Kasper.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was developed because investors wanted to connect eastern and western markets that were hampered by difficult mountain crossings. And while the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers provided vital transportation routes for communities to the east, no consistently navigable route extended into the Ohio River valley.
The Potomac River, with branches threading west and north, was a tantalizing but unavailable option.
“The Potomac has always been both an obstacle and an opportunity. Beautiful, amazing, but completely impractical for travel,” Kasper said.
By tapping into Potomac waters and staying parallel to its course, the C&O Canal eventually carved out a 184.5-mile link between Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, MD. Although the canal never reached the Ohio River, it enjoyed a colorful and sometimes frenzied existence until closing permanently in 1924.
Today, the entire canal route exists as a 19,000-acre national park and a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network.
Although trains outpaced the canal from the beginning of its construction, it was the Potomac River that delivered the final blow.
“The river likes to come out of its banks,” Kasper said. “Every time it comes out, it proves that you can’t really subdue it.”
Canal planners and operators knew this well, but accepted the seasonal risks in order to access western markets and resources. The first flood hit within one year of the groundbreaking. Many major and minor floods followed. In 1889, as the canal continued to lose business to the railroads, the waters surged again.
“It was a very big flood, and it basically wiped out the canal. It wasn’t worth borrowing the money to reconstruct it. Then the B&O Railroad came in and took controlling interest of the canal,” Kasper said.
Railroad interests kept the canal operating for another 35 years, rather than lose the land to competitors who might convert the canal into a route for new train tracks.
Floods that plagued the C&O Canal have actually been an ecological boon to its current role as a national park: The flood cycles, which have occurred on the Potomac for millions of years, are one reason for the park’s extraordinary natural diversity.
Flood waters distribute nutrient-rich silt and create sunny openings in the tree canopy. Floodplain forests, which cover about 85 percent of the park, especially benefit from the fertile soil, as do the popular array of spring wildflowers. Floods also move soil into high rocky crevices, where unusual plant species take root in the bedrock terrace.
As a result, the park is home to more than 1,200 native plant species, including 600 species of wildflowers—150 species which are rare, threatened or endangered in Maryland and D.C. Several are globally rare. The park also provides habitat for a wide range of wildlife, including bald eagles, fox, fish and freshwater mussels, as well as rare invertebrates.
“There are lots of very quiet places on the canal where you can stumble across almost anything—deer, fox, birds, eagles, butterflies, lizards,” Kasper said. “Recently, we had Baltimore orioles all over the place.”
The canal’s geographic spread adds to the diversity of plants and wildlife. In Georgetown, the canal sits in the low-lying Coastal Plain in a major metropolitan area. It moves upstream past the majestic Great Falls, through suburban acres to the rolling farmland of the Piedmont region; it crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains and ends in the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachians.
“There are all sorts of geologic stories here,” Kasper said. “Great Falls, for example, has been moving upstream for millions of years, with caves farther up the river. There are also quartz veins in the hillside that have little fragments of gold in them.”
The discovery of those flecks by a Union soldier caused a bit of gold fever along the canal, but 90 years of mining culled little more than 5,000 ounces from the hills.
“The canal is 184 miles worth of stories, different in every place and different every day. And all of them are an intersection of the human and the natural,” Kasper explained.
At peak activity, 4,000 men were building the canal, working simultaneously on different sections. Many of the workers were Irish immigrants, who suffered through disease outbreaks, horrendous conditions and IOUs in place of payment. They fought with their supervisors, each other and the Dutch and German workers.
These labor problems slowed construction, but so did the terrain and a series of legal battles. The original projected cost to construct the canal was $4 million over a four-year-period. In actuality, it required $11 million and 22 years.
Finally, in 1850, the entire route opened between Georgetown and Cumberland. (Plans to reach the Ohio River in Pittsburgh were summarily abandoned.) The finished network included 74 locks, seven dams and 11 aqueducts.
The last section to open also included the Paw Paw Tunnel, near Berkeley Springs, WV—a 3,118-foot passage that was deemed more efficient than maneuvering the canal through a series of wild curves in the river known as the Paw Paw Bends. The tunnel, which alone took 14 years to build, stands as exquisite testimony to 19th-engineering and the resilience of the workers.
Walking the Paw Paw Tunnel is one of Kasper’s favorite canal experiences.
“But always take a light,” he said.
The 20-minute walk will reduce the openings at both sides of the mountain to pinpoints of light.
“You can smell the water, and hear it going past in the dark. There’s also a rub rail along the path, which kept the mules from falling into the canal. If you run your hand along it, you can feel where ropes burned into the wood as they dragged the boat along,” Kasper said.
For many years, canal boat captains brought their entire families aboard, sharing living quarters in a 12-by-12 foot cabin at the stern. Mules got the front third of the boat, and cargo took the middle.
As many as 800 boats—pulled by 2,000 mules—worked the canal each year, averaging 25 round trips with traffic jams at both the Paw Paw Tunnel and in Georgetown as they waited to unload.
Today, park visitors can enjoy a shorter and more leisurely ride at select locations along the canal. But Georgetown is currently the only place to climb aboard, while Great Falls awaits a new boat and Cumberland completes a larger effort to re-water more of the historic canal bed.
Many of the 3 million people who visit the park each year prefer to explore the tow path and its surrounding trails on foot, bike or horseback. Choices are many and varied.
“On one hand, you have this incredible green space right at the doorstep of the nation’s capital. On the other hand, farther upstream, there are several miles between access points where you are not likely to see another person,” Kasper said.
The canal’s environs can fill a short afternoon or provide an extended trek, geared toward quiet time, fishing, nature explorations or history lessons.
Rita Knox, a park ranger in Cumberland, believes this is part of the park’s appeal.
“There are so many ways to approach it. There is a balance of culture and natural resources with opportunities for recreation and relaxation that’s almost unparalleled,” she said.
Most long-distance hikers and bikers start their journey at the Cumberland Visitors Center. Bicyclist can cover the full route in about a week and hikers in several weeks, depending on their speed and number of stops. The tow path is level and accessible, but side trails can be challenging.
Knox anticipates even more visitors when a new path, scheduled for completion later this year, connects the Cumberland canal terminus straight through to Pittsburgh. It is somewhat fitting that the extended path will exist on the bed of a now-defunct railroad.
With a setting full of colorful stories, history and rich natural surroundings, Kasper is certain that no one need leave disappointed.
“The C&O Canal,” he said, “is a gateway to understanding all the parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including the recent parts of the story that include its people.”
2006 Special Events
Sights & Sounds of the Season: 10 a.m. to noon the first & last Wednesday and Saturday of each month. Join volunteer naturalists at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center for a two-hour nature walk.
Lockhouse 8 River Center: 10 a.m. to noon most Saturdays & Sundays. Volunteers of the Potomac Conservancy staff the Lockhouse 8 along the Clara Barton Parkway, answering questions about the canal and the Potomac River.
Rileys Lockhouse Tours: 1–4 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 11. Girl Scouts, dressed in period clothing, will lead tours of Rileys Lockhouse, located at the end of Rileys Lock Road in Seneca, MD, while telling the story of a typical lock keeper’s family.
Ranger’s Choice: 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (Except Dec. 11). Join a park ranger at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center for a demonstration, talk or hike.
To learn more about special events at other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
C&O Canal National Historic Park
Natural areas are open during all daylight hours. Seven campsites are available. Horseback riding is permitted from mile 16.6 through 184.5. Hours for visitors centers, boat rides, operating locks and lock house tours vary. Call ahead to confirm, or visit http://www.nps.gov/choh to learn about hours, directions and special events.
Georgetown: The center, which still offers canal boat rides in the historic warehouse district, is temporarily closed for renovations. Contact: 202-653-5190
Great Falls Tavern: The historic 1831 tavern (originally a lock house) is adjacent to an operating lock and is a short walk from a view of the Great Falls. Entrance fee: $3/person or $5/vehicle. Contact: 301-767-3714.
Brunswick: This was both a small railroad and canal town. Contact: 301-834-7100.
Williamsport: Several major canal structures are found within a half-mile stretch. Contact: 301-582-0813
Hancock: This town relied on transportation for its livelihood. Contact: 301-678-5463
Cumberland: Interactive exhibits include a walk-through model of a portion of the Paw Paw Tunnel. There is also a life-size size section of a canal boat. Contact: 301-722-8226
Boat Ride Schedule
A one-hour canal ride goes through historic Georgetown. Fee: $8/adults; $6/seniors; $5/children. The 2006 schedule is:
July 1 to Aug. 31: 11 a.m. 1:30 & 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. There is an additional 4:30 p.m. ride on weekends.
Sept. 1 to Oct. 29: 11 a.m. & 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday There is an additional 1:30 p.m. ride on weekends.