Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Today we went back to Harpers Ferry, but instead of tackling the precipitous ascents of either Loudoun or Maryland Heights, we decided on a much easier trek, the C & O Canal Tow Path.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was one of several projects envisioned by George Washington as a way to connect the east coast with the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. The C&O, or "Grand Old Ditch" as it came to be called, was built for the express purpose of transporting coal from the Allegheny Mountains eastward. It was started in 1828 and completed in 1850, stretching 184 miles from what is now the Georgetown area of DC to Cumberland, Maryland and operated until 1924. The route resulted in elevation changes totaling 605 feet, requiring some 74 locks and 11 aqueducts. The boats were long and narrow, usually around 60 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of cargo. The unpowered boats were moved up and down river attached to teams of mules who were led along the towpath alongside the Canal.
Floods were the bane of the Canal's existence and it was a major inundation in 1924 and the onset of the Great Depression of 1929 that put the final nail into the coffin of the Canal. It languished for a number of years until 1938 when it was acquired by the National Park Service. Eventually, some 22 mile of the canal from Georgetown was restored and in the 1940's, passenger boats were plying the waters north of Georgetown. In 1961, President Eisenhower designated the Canal a National Monument, and by 1971, Richard Nixon signed into law the act creating the C & O Canal National Park. The canal's zero mile marker is on the Potomac River directly opposite the historically infamous Watergate Complex, a name that probably came from the opening gate to the canal, literally a "water gate." This is especially ironic when you consider that it was Nixon who signed the law that created the Canal park.