C&O Canal: Overview

Introduction Credits:
T Carter and M. Brach

Introduction Date:

Introduction Text:

In early 19th century America transportation of raw materials or finished goods was important. Within the first half of the century, as a part of the great Industrial Revolution, the United States enjoyed the age of canal building. The most famous is the Erie Canal connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River—linking the Great Lakes region to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was one of a network of American canals dug to provide water transportation for commercial trade, primarily hauling coal. Running parallel to the powerful Potomac River, the 184.5-mile canal linked Cumberland, Maryland with Washington, D.C. The C & O Canal operated successfully as a mode of transportation from 1828-1924, until outmoded by the railroad. Over the following two decades, the C & O experienced severe damage from major flooding. The U.S. Government restored and repurposed the canal as a park in 1938. Unfortunately, in 1942, yet another devastating flood destroyed the restoration.

In 1950, the assistant Secretary of the Interior proposed to demolish the damaged canal, replacing it with a super-highway. On July 3, 1954, a Washington Post editorial advocated the road plan. Consequently, the historic C & O Canal faced its sunset—until various citizen associations, namely the C & O Canal Association and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas took action to preserve the canal. Douglas, an avid naturalist, objected to the road plan because he feared the destruction of the natural habitat of the animals present and the beauty of the area in general. On January 19, 1954 a letter to the editor from Douglas appeared in the Post. Douglas challenged the editor(s) to walk with him along the entire 185-mile canal towpath. He believed the Post editors would change their minds on the road plan if they could only see the beauty of the area. In March of 1954 the Post editors along with other naturalists and preservationists departed from Georgetown for the 185-mile walk to Cumberland, MD. Public outcry over paving the canal led to heated debates in Congress over bills for both the road plan and ones to designate the C & O Canal a National Historical Park. In 1970, Maryland Representative Gilbert Gude introduced a designation bill that would suceed. On January 8, 1971, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Historical Park Act was passed. Even though the preservationist groups succeeded in their efforts to preserve the canal, there was opposition from groups who would benefit from a road.

There is much to discover about the nearly 50 years from the closing of canal operations to its designation as a National Historical Park in 1971. Exploration of the controversial history of the C & O Canal is possible through various primary sources—digital copies of original documents, diaries, letters, artwork, music, maps and photographs. Enjoy the journey!

C & O Canal Timeline

  • 1824 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company chartered
  • July 4, 1828 Ground breaking ceremony for the C & O
  • 1850 C & O Canal completed to Cumberland, Maryland
  • 1877 & 1889 Devastating floods
  • 1892 Canal repaired and back in business
  • 1924 Flooding damaged and permanently closed down Canal
  • 1938 U.S. Government acquired Canal and started restoration
  • 1939 Canal dedicated as a public park
  • 1950 Highway construction proposed by the Assistant Secretary of Interior
  • January 19, 1954 Justice William O. Douglas wrote a letter to the editor (The Washington Post) challenging editors to hike the entire Canal with him
  • January 21, 1954 Post editors accept Douglas’s invitation
  • March 20, 1954 The hike began—finishing eight days later, with the editors agreeing that the C & O Canal should be preserved
  • January 8, 1971
  • President Richard M. Nixon signed an act establishing the C & O Canal National Historical Park
  • May 17, 1977 C & O Canal dedicated to Justice William O. Douglas.

Document List

C & O Canal Association Membership Card (no date)
An image of an original C & O Canal Association Membership Card.
C & O Canal Association Logo (no date)
The C & O Canal Association Logo showing a mule and driver pulling a barge.
Photo - C & O Canal at Harper's Ferry at Jefferson Rock (00/00/1920c)
A collection of canal boats at bustling port of Harper's Ferry circa 1920.
Photo - C & O Canal with B & O Railroad Running Along Canal (00/00/1920c)
A photo of C & O Canal with the B & O Railroad running along.
Photo - C & O Canal Lock 5 with Mules and Boat (00/00/1920c)
A photo of the C & O Canal, Lock 5 with mules and boat.
Photo- C & O Canal, Boat (06/00/1930)
A photo of a boat on the C & O Canal in June 1930.
C. Marshall Finnan letter to L.H. Cross (12/30/1938)
Superintendent of the National Park Service Finnan informs Cross of the acquisition of the Canal property by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The letter spells out the new arrangements and costs for Cross' lease of the Canal land.
List of Original Hiking Party Including Youngsters (00/00/1954)
A list of the original hikers from the 1954 C & O Canal Hike. The list includes names and available addresses. An additional list of young people who were associated with the hike is included.
Photo- William Douglas Rests on 1954 Hike (03/00/1954)
A photo of William Douglas resting on the inaugural 185-mile 1954 hike.
Photo - C & O Canal, Tired Hiker Soaks his Feet (03/00/1954)
A photo of a tired hiker soaking his feet on the original C & O Canal Heritage Hike in 1954.
Photo - Douglas Leads the 1st Hike (03/00/1954)
A photo of William O. Douglas leading the 1st Heritage Hike along the C & O Canal in 1954.
Photo - C & O Canal Hikers (03/00/1954)
A photo showing a mass of hikers from the original 1954 Heritage Hike. In the foreground mules haul a boat in the canal.
Douglas Letter to Honorable McKay (04/22/1954)
A letter from Justice Douglas to Secretary of the Interior McKay containing proposals from the C & O Canal Committee. There were 4 proposals.
McKay letter to Douglas (05/04/1954)
Secretary of Interior McKay's response to a letter from Douglas and the C & O Canal Committee. McKay concurs with the 4 points mentioned in the Douglas letter and is in agreement with the major goals to be accomplished. McKay assures Douglas of continued commitment to the cause.
Excerpts from Colin Ritter's Personal Diary. (07/00/1954; 03/20-27/1954)
Excerpts from Colin Ritter's personal diary including his retrospective of the original 1954 C & O Canal Hike and a copy of the C & O Canal Song authored by Sig Olson and others on the hike, March 20-27, 1954.
Letter from Douglas to Ritter (04/04/1956)
Letter from Justice William O. Douglas to Colin Ritter notifing Ritter that the Interior Department has decided not to go forward with the highway plan on the old C & O Canal and would instead seek legislation for a National Park.
C & O Canal Association Certificate of Incorporation (05/21/1957)
The C & O Canal Association Certificate of Incorporation document showing the signatures of William O. Douglas, Lewis N. Shollenberger, and Smith W. Brookhart. This formalized the Association and its purpose.
News-clipping Urging C & O Canal Park-Thursday, June 13, 1957 (06/13/1957)
A news-clipping from the Washington Daily News, Thursday, June 13, 1957, showing support and opposition to the bill promoting the formation of a C & O Canal Historical Park.
Map - C & O Canal and Existing Roadways (00/00/1964)
A map of the C & O Canal and existing roadways in 1964. The Map shows the canal and its proximity to communities and roads stretching from Georgetown, D.C. to Cumberland, MD.
Photo - C & O Canal, 14th Annual Reunion Hike (04/27/1968)
A photo of theC & O Canal 14th Annual Reunion Hike. Robert Bell, Colin Ritter and Dean McClannahan discuss the route of the Hike on April 27, 1968.
News-clipping Promoting C & O Canal as Retreat-Thursday, August 29, 1968 (08/29/1968)
A news-clipping from The Daily Mail, Hagerstown, MD, showing support for the C & O Canal Historical Park by a member of the Hagerstown Rotary Club.
C & O Canal Petition (04/25/1970)
A C & O Canal Association petition to the President of the United States on the occasion of their 16th annual reunion hike along the towpath.
Smith letter to Hickel (06/03/1970)
Anthony Wayne Smith, legislative Council for the C & O Canal Association to the Secretary Of Interior Walter J. Hickel acknowledges Hickel's decision on supporting the advancement of the Bill to convert the C & O Canal to an Historical Park.
Colin Ritter letter to President Nixon (06/19/1970)
A Letter to President Nixon acknowledging the favorable report of the Department of Interior for a Bill to make the C & O Canal a National Historical Park. The C & O Canal Association expresses their gratitude and encloses a petition in favor of the Bill. Said Petition is page 2 of the document.
Facts on the C & O Canal (00/00/1971)
A list of facts on the C & O Canal consisting of its construction and operation.
The Potomac Newsletter of 1970, article promoting the Park (00/00/1971)
An article in The Potomac Newsletter discussing the progress of the C & O Canal Historical Park Bill. The newsletter mentions the Secretary of Interior Hickel formally recommending enactment of the legislation and Maryland Congressman Gilbert Gude's request for help in advancing the bill.
C & O Canal Association Newsletter, Along the Towpath (02/18/1971)
The C & O Canal Association's Newsletter celebrating the creation of the C & O Canal Historical Park. In January of 1971 President Nixon signed the bill into law. The newsletter contains three newspaper headlines from local papers heralding the achievement. The newsletter thanks all those who were involved in the cause.
H. R. 11226 Dedication Bill (12/17/1975)
H. R. 11226 is the bill to dedicate the C & O Canal National Historical Park to Justice William O. Douglas. This Bill was introduced into Congress in 1975.