homepage logo

C&O Canal Towpath sends its spring message

By Staff | Apr 3, 2016

Abandoned by businesses in 1924 after a devastating flood made it unprofitable to repair, the C&O canal and its adjoining towpath are anything but lonesome for people during these early days of another spring.

Just across the Potomac River from Shepherdstown, the canal’s towpath, where history was made and folklore was inspired by the leaden hoofprints of mules plodding their daily course on the narrow pathway, stood alongside the canal itself that once carried cargo between Cumberland and Washington, D.C., some 184.5 miles away … and light years away in societal terms.

Once called “The Great Ditch,” the Chesapeake & Ohio canal carried barges loaded with coal, whiskey and spirits and grain from western Maryland and West Virginia to Washington, D.C. On the return trip to Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, Williamsport, Big Pool, and Cumberland the barges would be laden with salt, sand, finished lumber and foodstuffs.

And always the Potomac River in its various stages of flow was a sometimes calm, sometimes raging neighbor just next door.

A boisterous flood in 1924 did so much damage to walls, locks, and even the housing quarters of those whose occupations were linked to the well-being of the canal that nobody had the capital nor the iron will to try to retrieve what had once been.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was closed.

It’s now open to an entirely different clientele and for recreation and relaxation for both man and beast.

Federal money was poured into saving the canal from going the way of the passenger pigeon or dodo bird – into extinction or mere memory.

Supreme Court Justice William Douglas took it upon himself to be a sort of one-man crusade for the canal and in the mid 1950s curried loads of publicity for his walk along the towpath from Washington, D.C. all the way to Cumberland.

Douglas and his pleas as well as his walk were enough to get federal government funds to begin restoration of the canal.

Now, some 60 years later, the C&O Canal has its patrons, those who can use it without charge.

On any given Saturday in the spring where the skies are clear and the weather forecast is favorable for mankind, you’ll find leisurely walkers, bicyclists, joggers, young marrieds pushing strollers, dogs exhibiting all energy levels, children merrily bouncing along and couples out for the afternoon all moving about on the towpath.

Some pay close attention to nature, pointing to the trees swaying in the constant breezes that launch themselves right next to the river. Others come to enjoy the freshness of the blooming redbud trees and wild dogwoods.

Lady slippers greet those from across the bridge in Shepherdstown. Jack-in-the-pulpits make their yearly appearance. And the yellow flowers on the mustard plants try to outdo the nearby ground covered almost in mats by the dandelions.

The latter-day visitors might see caves just off the towpath as they walk westward toward one of the landings used by boaters and fishermen on the river.

Where the river is visible, there could be ducks, herons, geese or even cormorants that have followed the spawning fish up from Washington or Great Falls.

Locks and houses where locktenders lived are found when walking any distance. Stations where the mules were freshened or fed can be seen.

If a visitor doesn’t see deer, squirrels, muskrats on the Potomac’s banks, numbers of songbirds or rabbits, then they will the next time they find a way to come back and visit.

Many know of the Ferry Hill Place just above the bridge that leads from Shepherdstown to Maryland. Once a plantation and many years later a restaurant that served the best steak, fries and fresh garden salad within miles, Ferry Hill now is in the hands of the federal government and C&O Canal preservation people.

Around 1900 when the canal towpath was alive with business activity and bustling Shepherdstown was a beehive of activity with farmers, orchardists, tradesmen, Shepherd State Teachers College people and stately residences and churches, the towpath was still thriving despite floods, business ebbs and flows and costly upkeep on its surface and surroundings.

Now, some 100-plus years later, Shepherdstown is still bustling … and the towpath has more than its share of activity and daily visitors enjoying its open spaces, natural beauties and comfortable pleasures associated with people’s free time and love of the outdoors.