common / Crossroads Weekend

C & O Canal once again a focus of activity and transit

The C & O Canal is a nearby treasure for bicyclists and hikers.The C & O Canal is a nearby treasure for bicyclists and hikers.The C&O Canal was in business for 93 years — the whole of the American Interstate Highway System will need to operate another six decades before it equals the length of service of the Grand Old Ditch — and was far more consequential to commerce that it is generally given credit for.

The popular notion is that it was obsolete by the time of its completion, usurped by the iron horse, whose roads reached Cumberland, Md., at the same time as the canal. But it was raging floodwaters, not the puffing steam engines that put the canal out of business; during the first World War, canal boats were still hauling better than 150,000 tons of coal a year.Historic structures—what stories they could tell!—may be found all along the canal.Historic structures—what stories they could tell!—may be found all along the canal.

In a sense, though, it is unfair to say that the canal ceased production 90 years ago, because today it is thriving once again. It is true that the canal fell victim to neglect and was briefly considered as the route for an automotive highway, but in 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas brought attention to the towpath’s recreational potential by hiking its length, and convincing people of influence of the old waterway’s natural beauty.

The 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel is a hand-carved wonder along the canal.The 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel is a hand-carved wonder along the canal.Today the canal is quite productive indeed, as 5 million visitors a year run, bicycle and hike its 184-mile length.

Berkeley Springs was never a Canal Town in the sense of Hancock, Cumberland, Williamsport or any of the other river communities that depended in part on the canal for their livelihood. Berkeley Springs is, however, well positioned to take advantage of the canal’s new identity as a hub of tourism, history and recreation.

Hancock and other river towns are already reaping the benefits, and have formed a Canal Town alliance, joining forces to promote canal tourism. Scarcely more than a five-minute drive from the towpath, Berkeley Springs is able to promote the canal as a local attraction, while offering the food, lodging and art for which it is renowned to travelers exploring the park’s western reaches.

The park attracts more than 5 million visitors a year, but most of this use occurs in and around Unlike the parts of the canal that are closer to Washington, the sections above Hancock have smaller crowds and the ties to nature are richer, too.Unlike the parts of the canal that are closer to Washington, the sections above Hancock have smaller crowds and the ties to nature are richer, too.Washington, D.C. Groups such as the C&O Canal Trust have shown interest in urging some of these park visitors upstream, where the crowds are smaller and the ties to nature are richer.

Cyclists and hikers staying in Berkeley Springs and Hancock can make easy daytrips to some remarkable natural and man-made features along the canal. History fans can bone up on the under-told story of the French and Indian War at Fort Frederick near Clear Spring, or trace the ghostly steps of the once-burgeoning fruit industry along the Western Maryland Rail Trail west out of Hancock.

The Paw Paw Bends, where the Potomac River switchbacks its way through a mountainous maze in search of an exit to the sea. The Paw Paw Bends, where the Potomac River switchbacks its way through a mountainous maze in search of an exit to the sea. Boaters and bicyclists alike can be awed by the Paw Paw Bends, where the Potomac River switchbacks its way through a mountainous maze in search of an exit to the sea. And those who love local character will want to peddle up to Bill’s Place in Little Orleans to wet their whistle or grab a bite.

The C&O Canal park is also preparing two significant rewatering projects in Hancock and Williamsport, while the Trust is planning to expand its Canal Quarters program, which allows travelers a fascinating overnight stay in original canal lockhouses that were once home to the men and women who swing the big wooden gates that filled or emptied the limestone locks. The goal is a hut-to-hut experience for hikers and bikers along the length of the towpath.

Just as exciting is the ever-increasing stream of bicyclists enroute from Pittsburgh to Washington on the combined stretches of the canal towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage leading west out of Cumberland.

Designated as Bicycle Route 50, this corridor will eventually connect on existing roads to San Francisco, part of a national network of bicycle routes planned by the Adventure Cycling Association out of Missoula, Mont.

The C & O Canal Trust is planning to expand its Canal Quarters program, which allows travelers a fascinating overnight stay in original canal lockhouses like this one.The C & O Canal Trust is planning to expand its Canal Quarters program, which allows travelers a fascinating overnight stay in original canal lockhouses like this one.For those with more modest goals, short jaunts along the canal pass old industrial ruins, ghost towns, former rail stops and of course plenty of river and mountain scenery with accompanying wildlife and wildflowers.

On a broader scale, the canal cuts a swath through some of the nation’s most significant natural Bicyclists and hikers can see all sorts of canal residents along the way.Bicyclists and hikers can see all sorts of canal residents along the way.and historical territory. It either abuts or is within minutes of Green Ridge State Forest, with its miles of hiking trails; the Cacapon River watershed famous for boating and fishing; the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, home to Sleepy Creek Lake and the Tuscarora Trail; Fort Frederick and the Conococheague Institute, which document Indian massacres and colonial settlements on what was the for a half-century, the American frontier; Cacapon State Park with cabins, hiking, horseback riding and golf; and the remnants of Rt. 40, the Mid-Atlantic America’s first and Sunbathing turtles share their canal with visitors.Sunbathing turtles share their canal with visitors.most famous road west.

For nearly a century, the C&O Canal was a bustling transportation artery. For the next half century it slept. Gradually there has been a reawakening and in the 2st century, the canal is primed to once again become a focus of activity and transit. Only this time, instead of swearing teamsters and barges of coal, flour and plaster, the canal will be home to a demographic that is ready to relax and have fun.

 

http://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm 

http://www.canaltrust.org/trust/ 

http://www.candocanal.org

https://www.mdmountainside.com/attraction/green_ridge_state_forest 

http://www.cacaponresort.com 

http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/fortfrederick.aspx

http://cimlg.org

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