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Cumberland / D.C. trail began as a freight canal

| Monday, June 17, 2013, 7:25 p.m.
“The Charles Mercer,” a replica of a 19th Century canal boat, courtesy of National Park Service volunteer Nancy Benco. Visitors to the C&O Canal towpath trail can ride “The Charles Mercer” and its sister boat, “The Georgetown,” for a small fee. For more information, call 301-739-4200.
Black and white historical photo of a canal boat, provided by the National Park Service.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Daily Courier is featuring a series of articles throughout the summer, detailing the history of the trails and how the trail through Connellsville came about. Today, at Cumberland, Md., the Great Allegheny Passage links with a 185-mile trail that's roots were water — not rails.

The 185-mile bike trail that links Cumberland, Md., with Washington, D.C., once upon a time transported tons of freight. However, it was water, boats and mules — not trains — that carried the goods to their destinations.

Today, it is a recreational area known as the C&O Canal Towpath National Historical Trail. It links with the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile trail between Cumberland and Pittsburgh. Together, the two provide 335 unbroken miles of bike trail between the Steel City and the nation's capital.

As the American states developed westward from the East Coast across the Appalachian Mountains, transportation became increasingly difficult. By the time the colonists had won their freedom from Great Britain in 1783, Easterners knew it was important to find a sensible way to shuttle goods from the Western Frontier to the Atlantic Ocean and vice versa.

George Washington involved

George Washington, along with other early leaders, believed that U.S. trade needed a network of navigable waterways to get things — and people — to and from the coast. In 1785, he and several other investors formed the Potowmack Co. to make the Potomac River — which borders Virginia and Maryland — more navigable.

The Potowmack Co.'s projects include a series of short canals that skirted the Potomac River's waterfalls so that boats could successfully float downstream to Georgetown, near the nation's new capital at Washington, D.C.

In 1825, the Erie Canal opened in New York, linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie, giving easy access to the frontier as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Southern traders were wary; they wanted to protect Southern business interests. The result was the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Its designers planned that the man-made waterway would link the Potomac with the Ohio River near Pittsburgh.

Washington's Potowmack Co. was sold and a new company, the C&O Company, was chartered in 1825. On July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams — son of second President John Adams — participated in ground-breaking ceremonies in Maryland.

Canal: Many obstacles

The canal, which mostly parallels the Potomac River, faced many obstacles. The first was a labor shortage; also, right-of-way litigation with several landowners blocked construction for five years, from 1842 to 1847. By the time the canal reached Cumberland, it was already obsolete.

The C&O Canal never made it all the way to the Ohio River as planned. However, it did see some use. Freight-filled boats floated downstream to ports and unloaded, then were towed back upstream, usually with horses and mules — hence the name, “Towpath.”

Its freight business peaked after the Civil War, as the coal industry began to thrive. The C&O Canal's peak year was 1871, when more than 500 boats delivered 850,000 tons of coal to customers.

Railroads replaced canals

By the 1870s, the railroads were the preferred mode of freight transportation. The C&O's business was dwarfed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and further crippled by a national depression and several floods.

In 1899, a flood forced the C&O into receivership and the B&O Railroad purchased it. The death knell came in 1924 when the flagging canal — originally nicknamed “The Great Ditch” — was flooded so severely that the B&O chose not to repair it. It was good business sense; by the 1920s, almost all freight was shipped by rail.

When the Great Depression of the 1930s crippled the U.S. economy, the B&O suffered financially with everyone else. In 1938, the railroad sold the 185-mile canal and its right-of-way to the U.S. government and the National Park Service assumed control of it.

President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed it a national monument in 1961. A 1971 Act of Congress authorized the acquisition of additional land along the canal established the corridor as the C&O Canal Towpath National Historical Trail.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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