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C&O Canal Towpath Trail 'judged' as great recreation

The 185-mile C&O Canal Towpath Heritage Trail is managed by the National Park Service. This peaceful scene along the trail was taken by park volunteer Nancy Benco.

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By Laura Szepesi
Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 6:39 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Daily Courier is featuring a series of articles throughout the summer, detailing the history of the trails and how the train through Connellsville came about. Today, the 185-mile C & O Canal Towpath Heritage Trail to Washington, D.C., began with a federal judge's stroll in March 1954.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath Trail could have been a parkway between Cumberland, Md., and Washington, D.C., if a federal judge hadn't decided to take a walk in the 1950s.

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad owned the canal in 1938 when the utility gave it — and its right-of-way — to the U.S. government in exchange for a federal loan.

Government plans to restore the 185-mile path as a recreational area were abandoned when the United States entered World War II in 1941.

After the war, Congress considered using the corridor as a highway between Cumberland and Washington, D.C.

Feelings were mixed about using automobiles on the trail; many of the canal path's miles snaked through beautiful, pristine wilderness.

Judge takes hike

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas decided to see the path for himself. In March 1954, he led a group of 58 people on an eight-day hike along the C&O Canal right-of-way.

Only nine people — including Douglas — completed the 185 miles.

However, popular response from the hikers and positive press coverage shifted the project's focus off transportation and back onto recreation.

The National Park Service was appointed to develop the corridor, and President Dwight Eisenhower declared it a national monument in 1961.

A 1971 Act of Congress authorized National Park Service to acquire additional lands along the trail as needed.

That same year, the C&O Canal Towpath Trail was designated a National Historical Park.

Some portions of the canal have been re-watered and are used for recreational boating, although the majority of the 185-mile canal remains dry.

Canal boats available

In the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., visitors can ride on two canal boats reproduced in the style of the 19th Century. The boats — named The Charles F. Mercer and The Georgetown — are pulled by mules, as freight boats were during the canal's commercial heyday.

Visitors to D.C. also can tour an original lockkeeper's house located near the National Mall, at 17th Street NW and Constitution Avenue.

The National Park Service estimates that at least 3 million people visit the C&O Canal Towpath Trail annually. That number is expected to increase with the official opening of the Great Allegheny Passage between Cumberland and Pittsburgh, as the two trails combined provide 335 unbroken miles of recreation.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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