This park was established in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to preserve the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the C&O Canal), which had been closed since 1924. The park, which extends along the Potomac River, is almost 20,000 acres in size and received around 5 million visits annualy.
The C&O Canal and its towpath trail runs from Georgetown in Washington, DC. to Cumberland in Maryland. The total distance is 184.5 miles (almost 297 km).
Construction of the canal commenced in 1828, and the first stage of the canal opened for use in 1831. Construction ended in 1850 when the canal reached Comberland. The canal was closed after a series of floods in 1924, when railway transport and improved roads had already made it rather obsolete. During its heydays, the canal was chiefly used to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains to Washington, D.C.
Visiting the park
A fee is charged if you access the park through the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. Accessing the park anywhere else is free.
Activities in the park
- The canal is today used for boating and kayaking.
- The canal and its surrounding landscape is rich in natural beauty, and the towpath is popular for hiking, running, and biking.
- Certain locations within the park are used for rock climbing.
- Other examples of popular activities here are fishing and birdwatching.
History tours on the canal boats
Two reproduction canal boats travel the canal with tourists onboard: The Georgetown and the CharlesF. Mercer. Tours are available during spring, summer and fall. The canal boats are pulled by mules in the traditional style. Onboard, park rangers wear historical dress and present a historical program.
- The National Park Service maintains several hiking/bicycle campsites in the park. Along the towpath, you can expect to reach one of the bicycle/hiking campsites every 5-7 miles or so. Camping spots can not be booked in advance; they are first-come first-serve. The waterpumps are active during the warm season; from mid-April to mid-November. Each campground have latrine, firepit, and picnic area. These campgrounds are free of charge, but you can only stay one night.
- The C&O Canal NHP maintains a few tent and primitive RV campsites, for individuals and for groups up to 35 individuals. Some of these sites do not have amenities such as restrooms. Since December 2016, the drive-in (car) campsites are no longer first-come, first-serve. The reservation system is found at Recreation.gov. Group campsites are $40 during peak season and $20 during off season.
There are several National Park Service visitor centers for the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Among other things, they feature displays and exhibits where you can learn more about the history of the canal.
There are visitor centers at Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, Brunswick, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland.
U.S. Bicyle Route 50
In 2013, the path that runs alongside the canal was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50.
The Appalachian Trail
Near Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a small portion of the canal´s towpath is also a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Short facts about the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park
- Locally, it is known as the Grand Old Ditch.
- It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places
- It is a U.S. National Historical Park
- It is a former U.S. National Monument
- It is listed as Category V (Protected Landscape/Seascape) by IUCN
- A zero mile sign marks the start of the canal on the Potomac, opposite the Watergate complex. It is accessible via Thompson’s Boat House.
- In Allegany County, Marylnd, the park includes the Western Maryland Railroad Right-of-Way, Milepost 126 to Milepost 160, which have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981.
The canal was used in 1831-1924
Work on the C&O Canal started in 1828, and ended in 1850 when the canal reached Cumberland. By then, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) had been working for eight years, partly rendering the canal obsolete. Until the mid-1870s, however, C&O canal transport was typically cheaper than railway transport, so the canal did get quite a lot of business. In the mid-1870s the railway largely outcompeted the canal, as the introduction of larger locomotives and air brakes made it possible for the railway to lower its prices. Still, the canal was in use until 1924. A contributing reason to the canal being closed in 1924 was several serious floods.
Originally, the canal was not supposed to end in Cumberland; the plan was to have it continue all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As late as 1874, there were talks about extending the canal by digging an 8.4 mile long tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains.
The federal government obtains the canal and starts restoring it
In 1938, during the Great Depression, the B&O Railroad transferred the abandoned canal to the United States federal government in exchange for a loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The federal government planned to restore it as a recreational area and create job opportunities.
By 1940, the first 22 miles of the canal, from Georgetown to Violettes Lock (Lock #23) had been repaired and rewatered. The work had been carried out by African-American enrollees with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The following year, a canal boat began giving mule-driven rides.
World War II
The restoration project was put on hold during WWII. Harry Athey suggested it could be turned into an underground bomb shelter, but his suggestion was not carried out as the area is prone to flooding.
In 1942, the rewatered section of the canal was destroyed by a spring flood. Later that year, NPS official Arthur E. Demaray turned the canal into a matter of national security, as he suggested that a part of it should be restored to serve as a back-up in case the normal conduits bringing water to the important Dalecarlia Reservoir were bombed or sabotaged. By October 1943, the Park Service could resume offering canal boat trips on the restored section.
The Douglas hike
In March 1954, United States Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas led an eigh-day hike along the towpath to protest against turning the canal into an automobile road. 58 people participated in the hike, although only nine of them (including Douglas) hiked the full 184.5 miles.
Douglas went on to form the commitee that would eventually become the C&O Canal Association. Their lobbying proved successful, and the canal was saved. In 1958, the entire towpath was cleared to promote hiking, and a 12-mile bicycle trail was created by putting crushed blue stone on the muddy towpath from Mule Bridge in Washington, D.C. to Widewater, Maryland.
By 1960, cyclists were biking hte full route.
A National Monument
In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower declared the canal a National Monument under the Antiquities Act.
A National Historical Park
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 8, 1971, established the canal as a National Historical Park.