Cumberland / D.C. trail began as a freight canal
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Amish items available at Wavie and Janes in Connellsville
- Charleroi man’s body found hours after disappearance on Youghiogheny River
- Connellsville students bringing Civil War to life
- DA’s office recused from Fayette man’s $110K cocaine case
- Fayette County Salary Board approves hires
- Connellsville Area School District rethinks grading
- Gulf War veteran restores Uniontown mansion
- Connellsville gifted students stage ‘Living Wax Museum’
- Police in Fayette County seek witnesses to motorcycle accident
- Emergency crews search Youghiogheny River in Layton for Charleroi man
- Vanderbilt council addresses abandoned homes, parking