Posts Tagged ‘Great Allegheny Passage’

C&OcanalMarker (1)

C&O Canal Completion Marker

The Washington Monument is an iconic obelisk that for many symbolizes the city of D.C.   But it is not the oldest obelisk in the city.  That honor goes to the one enclosed by a cast iron fence on the northwest corner of the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge (MAP), located in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood, that commemorates the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.  The C&O Canal’s monument is approximately ten feet tall, and was dedicated in 1850.  While that was two years after construction began on The Washington Monument, enormous structures necessarily take more time to build and the 555-foot Washington Monument wasn’t completed until 1885.

Despite being right next to a sidewalk along one of the busy streets of Georgetown, the C&O Canal obelisk is often overlooked these days by impatient passersby as they hurry along their way.  The canal itself is often overlooked as well, considered just part of the scenery.  But in its heyday the canal, also known as the “Grand Old Ditch,” was one of the primary modes of transporting materials into and out of the city for almost a century, operating from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland.

Throughout the canal’s 184.5 mile length the elevation change rises and falls a total of 605 feet, which necessitated the construction of 74 canal locks (a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels), 11 aqueducts (bridge structures that carry navigable waterway canals over obstacles) to cross major streams, and more than 240 culverts (structures that allows water to flow under an obstacle) to cross smaller streams.  A 3,118-foot-long tunnel, named the Paw Paw Tunnel, was also constructed to allow the canal to bypass the Paw Paw Bends, a six-mile stretch of the Potomac River containing five horseshoe-shaped bends.  An extension of the canal to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh was planned but never built.

While in operation the canal was integral to transporting sand, gravel, clay, paving stones, fire bricks, cement and lumber for construction of the expanding city, as well as bringing slaughtered hogs and meat, fresh and salted fish, flour, oats and grains, corn meal, whiskey and spirits, as well as coal from the Allegheny Mountains and other general merchandise to feed and provide for the city’s burgeoning population.

Without the canal, the city would not be what it is today.  That’s a lot of significance symbolized by a small, overlooked obelisk.

    

    
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Note:  The canal way is now maintained as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, with a multi-use trail that follows the old towpath.  The canal and towpath trail parallels the Potomac River and extends from D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of 184.5 miles.  Together with the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, a rail trail where the extension of the C&O Canal to Pittsburgh would have been if it had been completed, they form a continuous 334.5-mile trail between D.C. and Pittsburgh.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath

If you’re out for a bike ride in downtown D.C. and you find yourself wanting to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, one of the quickest  ways to escape is to head over to the Georgetown neighborhood where the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O ) Canal and Towpath begins (MAP).  Then, use the towpath to ride west.

A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a canal, river, or other inland waterway that allows a land vehicle, mules or horses, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge.  This mode of transport was once commonplace in areas where sailing was impossible or impractical due to rapid currents, obstructions like tunnels and bridges, or unfavorable winds.  After the Industrial Revolution, towing became obsolete when engines were fitted on boats and when railway transportation superseded the slow towing method.  Since then, many towpaths, like the one along the C&O Canal, have been converted to multi-use recreatonal trails.

The C&O Canal and towpath is located along the northern bank of the Potomac River, and runs 184.5 miles starting in D.C. and ending in Cumberland, Maryland.  The canal was built between beginning in 1828, and was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River.  It operated sporadically between floods, until it became obsolete in 1924, after which it was abandoned.  Today, much of the canal has been drained of water and reclaimed by the forest.  However, the entire towpath remains.

Three decades after closing down, in 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day hike up the canal’s towpath in an attempt to draw attention to its potential as a recreational area, and to save it from being converted to a parkway, as was being planned by Congress at that time.  His efforts succeeded and the canal and towpath were saved from development, eventually to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  The park was established as a National Monument in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in order to preserve the neglected remains of the canal along with many of the original canal structures.  Further ensuring preservation efforts, portions of the towpath are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The C&O Canal National Historical Park now receives more than three million recreation visits annually, and is a favorite of bicyclists like me, as well as hikers, joggers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, and others.

Most recently, in November of 2013, the C&O Canal Towpath was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50, which is part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System.  The system is a developing network of interstate long-distance cycling routes in the U.S.  And with the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail from western Pennsylvania to Cumberland, it is now possible to ride a continuous 339 non-motorized vehicle-free miles from D.C. all the way to Point State Park in Pittsburgh.

So I caution you to be careful when you’re in D.C. and decide to go for a ride on the C&O Canal Towpath.  It is such an enjoyable and peaceful environment for riding that, if you’re not careful and paying attention, you may end up finding yourself in Pittsburgh.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]