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.
Today, the canal is mostly dewatered, but the tow path remains, providing a wonderful hiking and biking trail that connects the entire original 184-mile length from Georgetown to Cumberland. Also, at Cumberland, the tow path trail connects to the Great Allegheny Passage trail that continues on into downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We parked in the historic part of Harpers Ferry, considered the psychological mid-point of the Appalachian Trail. The AT shares part of the C&O, running from the town to the base of Weverton Cliff. We geared up and headed across the pedestrian bridge over the Potomac River at the point where it is joined by the Shenandoah.
One of the reasons you need a canal. This makes for really iffy navigation.
Couple of Kayakers floating on the Potomac.
Once across the bridge, we descended a steel staircase and found ourselves on the Tow Path, facing the remains of the house where the local canal manager lived and did business. Here also, you see one of the locks that raised and lowered the boats to follow the elevation of the terrain.
We turned left and headed northwest. The towpath is one of the most easily-walkable long distance trails you'll ever find. It is wide and covered by pea gravel, which makes for a very comfortable, and fast, pathway. Most of the trail users use bicycles, but they're a friendly and accommodating lot, not the bad-tempered racing gear nazis you find on the urban trails throughout the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia).
The trail is a picturesque place, following the river and passing through beautiful riverside forests. It was a cool and comfortable day which made the hike a very enjoyable experience. As you trek along, you pass the old locks. One of the amazing things about places like this is marveling at how heavy construction like this was done successfully without powertools. The walls of the locks were precisely straight, something you wouldn't expect from purely manual labor.
Opposite the river, is the canal itself, now pretty much a ditch, again a remarkable achievement that 184 miles of this ditch was dug using only strong backs and shovels.
Some of the landforms were interesting.
The trail is deceptively easy, and you feel like you could go forever, but Cheryl's foot was acting up and we ended up turning around at the 3-mile mark and heading back. But it was a nice hike, 6 miles through some of the most remarkable American history.