by Geoff Fox
In 1938, officials in the US government bought the right of way of the 184.5-mile long C&O Canal, which at that time had been sitting dormant for 14 years.
While the first 22 miles of the canal had been repaired and re-watered, the beginning of World War II brought restrictions that would put a stop to the rest of the project.
The planned project had $40,000 for a joint survey and report on the feasibility of using the canal as a parkway for vehicles.
A January 3, 1954 editorial in the Washington Post in support of the plan caught the eye of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who was an avid outdoorsman.
Douglas wrote a rebuttal letter to the editor about the beauty, history, wildlife, and recreational opportunities the canal could provide. He also told the editor he hiked the canal.
There was also a challenge issued to the editors of The Washington Post in the letter.
Douglas challenged those editors to hike the entire length of the canal.
On March 20, 1954, a group of 58 people set out from Cumberland on the canal, averaging 23 miles a day. Only nine men completed the trek, including the 55-year old Douglas.
On the last night of the hike, Douglas organized a committee to make recommendations and draft plans for preserving and protecting the canal. That committee became the C&O Canal Association in 1957.
Thanks to Douglas’ efforts, the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park Act was signed January 8, 1971.
In 1977, the park was officially dedicated to Douglas.
The C&O Canal Association is an all-volunteer, independent organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the historical and natural resources of the 184-mile park.
“Today, we work with, and serve as an unofficial partner of, the Park,” said Association President Bill Holdsworth.
The Association works with the National Park Service and other
organizations to maintain and restore the canal’s historic structures.
One such project was a few years ago here in Hancock.
Holdsworth said the Association funded repainting and repair work at the Bowles House Visitor Center.
“Association members are among those that have volunteered at the visitor center,” he said.
They also help ensure the continuity and safety of, and public access to, the towpath from Washington D.C. to Cumberland and also advocate for the continued viability of the park itself.
The C&O Canal Association is a non-profit organization that gets funding through the dues, donations, and contributions from there 800 members. There are also donations from the general public as well.
Those monies are then provided to help maintain and restore the historical structures, such as aqueducts, locks, culverts, and lock houses.
“We initiate projects by providing financial assistance to the Park and coordinating funding with other organizations,” Holdsworth said.
Volunteers from the Association also provide thousands of hours of work each year to ensure the accessibility, safety, and enjoyment of the towpath through a variety of organized activities, such as a level-walker program, invasive plant removal, and work parties.
The Association also educates the public about the canal by leading and sponsoring hikes, bike trips, paddle trips, open houses, and nature walks “in an effort to educate participants and bring attention to the Park,” Holdsworth said. “We research canal history and publish the findings.”
Being an unofficial park partner allows the association to advocate independently on behalf of the park.
The last two years, the C&O Canal Association has funded a seasonal ranger at Cumberland to augment park staff.
Holdsworth said the funding came from an estimate by the Park Service for what the cost would be for that ranger and the association donated the money for the project.
The same thing happened at the Bowles House when it was repainted and repaired.
Holdsworth said the Association gave the National Park Service the money for the project, however the NPS had to advertise and hire the contractor.
“We are currently working with the National Park Service to create wayside exhibits at Carderock, highlighting the restoration work of the Civilian Conservation Corps 1937-41,” Holdsworth said. “There were two African American camps that worked on the canal.”
The Association will also be hosting the 2021 World Canals Conference in Hagerstown.
Since the Douglas Hike in 1954 and the establishment of the Association, Holdsworth said there is still an “enormous amount of work to be done.”
“The park inherited a 184-mile canal with hundreds of historic structures, including aqueducts, locks, lock houses, and culvert, that cry for maintenance,” he said.
The canal has become more popular than ever thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage, Holdsworth added.
Since the Association is volunteer based, Holdsworth said they’re always looking for new volunteers.
If you’d like to volunteer, Holdsworth said you can go to their website, candocanal.org, and sign up or watch their Facebook page for projects.
There are yearly dues that range from $15 to $25, depending on what level you want to sign up for.
This weekend, the C&O Canal Association is holding an event that marks the 65th anniversary of Douglas’ first hike along the canal.
The celebration features two nights of camping at a private campground in Williamsport and two days of bus-supported towpath hiking.
On Saturday, May 4, hikers will be meeting at the Four Locks boat ramp and travel via bus to one of three upstream starting points.
Long hikers will be starting at the Bowles House in Hancock and walk just over 14 miles back to Four Locks. Medium hikers will start at the lower end of Little Pool and walk just over 11 miles.
Reservations for the hike, or any of the other activities associated with the anniversary hike, are no longer being accepted.