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Following in the Footsteps/Historic Hike Reenacted, Remembered

by Nathan Oravec

“A refuge, a place of quiet retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door.”
- William O. Douglas

Fifty years ago, the C&O towpath almost became another road.

In another reality, perhaps it did - there, automobiles cruise the length of the Potomac at rapid clips, when not bumper to bumper, oblivious to the natural remnants about them; those, that is, that haven’t faded and grayed from smog, litter and congestion inevitably occurring from man’s increasing reliance on machines.

In this one, though, and thankfully, the canal remains as it was - and will ever be - a natural testament of survival and strength; beauty and serenity, thanks to the conviction of one man who fought the paving of paradise and won.

And like many good things, it all started with a nice walk.

The First Steps

After the Federal Government acquired the C&O Canal in 1938, it enjoyed nearly a decade of relative dormancy until, in 1945, the notion for the towpath’s conversion to a parkway was raised. Initially a plan of the National Park Service to counteract proposals from the Army Corp of Engineers for a series of dams, the road was perceived as a means of stimulating the economy of outlying towns while opening the canal’s vast beauty to millions of individuals. In 1950, supported by the Department of Interior, Congress approved the plan.

Notes William Justice, Chief of Interpretation for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, many who had long enjoyed the canal for recreational hiking, fishing and horseback riding, strongly opposed the parkway. Outdoorsman and conservationist, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, was one of them.

After years of vacillation, an article appeared in The Washington Post encouraging the parkway’s creation. “The basic advantage of the parkway,” it read, “is that it would enable more people to enjoy beauties now seen by very few.”

Douglas disagreed.

“He was absolutely the person who ignited interest in the canal,” says Justice. A staunch supporter of the canal’s natural state remaining untouched, Douglas wrote a response to the Post’s piece, challenging its editors to walk the 184.5 mile trail with him.

They accepted.

Word of the walk spread, and before long, hundreds had asked to attend. Douglas comprised a core team of thirty-eight walkers, including renowned conservationists Dr. Olaus Murie and Sig Olsen, and on March 20, 1954, the party set out from Cumberland, Maryland for its history-making journey.

“The concept of conservation was just being developed,” says Justice. “Some of these men - such as Olaus Murie and Sig Olsen - [were pioneers in the movement]. In addition to the preservation of the C&O Canal, many of these men were responsible for the creation of parks such as the Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Teton National Park. We tend to skim over them somehow, but the fact that they were involved truly underscores what they saw in this resource.”

Only nine men, with Douglas leading the way, would complete the arduous, eight-day trek.

At its culmination on March 27, 1954, Supreme Court Justice Douglas established a committee to further focus on the canal’s preservation. It would later become the C&O Canal Association.

Shortly after the lauded hike, The Washington Post retracted its position on the parkway. The walk had garnered monumental support for the committee’s cause. Following an unprecedented media storm - with periodicals, networks and newsreels covering the event - public opinion had landed in the canal’s corner, and the following year, the Park Service had too.

In March of 1961, “with a stroke of the pen,” says Justice, the C&O Canal was denoted a National Monument by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Part of the National Park System, it still received no funding and was subject to any and all congressional authorization. Finally, ten years later, in January of 1971, Congress officially created the C&O Canal National Historical Park. “Having Congress officially sanction a park [was an important landmark,]” notes Justice. “Essentially, it signified that the people had chosen it.”

Retracing the Steps

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of “The Hike that Created a Park,” the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Association have invited the public to join in a reenactment of the Douglas expedition. A core group of 70 began traversing the towpath on April 18, with the 184.5-mile walk, spanning from Washington D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, scheduled to end on May 1. Those interested, notes Justice, can join the walk at any point along the canal, and those wanting only to walk a portion are encouraged to visit the National Park Service’s web site,, for all information on the hike’s current location. “On any given day, hikers can join at a different access point.” For those traveling in a group, Justice suggests taking two vehicles - one to remain at both drop-off and pickup locales.

One of the most important messages for prospective walkers, says Justice, is preparation. “We encourage all who come and walk to be prepared. You’ll want to bring water and sunscreen - which will be very important this weekend - and food. Something that’s not perishable - tuna salad sandwiches are a really bad idea. Fruit is always good. Bring a first aid kit, a hat, maybe a small pair of binoculars. You might also want to bring a field guide for something you want to learn about. The Peterson’s Guide is a nice guide.”

“A cell phone is a good idea,” he continues. “But be aware that there are some places along the canal that have no reception.”

“Most of the problems people get into can be solved just by being prepared.”

The 50th Anniversary of the Douglas hike is an event to be celebrated, but, Justice notes, it is a moment that can be enjoyed throughout the upcoming spring and summer months. “It’s the 50th anniversary, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to go out today. We encourage everyone to come out at any time and enjoy their park.”

Future Steps

Existing in the flood plain, the preservation of the canal and its towpath, says Justice, is a constant process. Upcoming projects include the restoration of the path’s continuity. At present, two notable breaks exist - one at Big Slackwater, behind Dam #4, and another at the DC area’s Widewater - both the result of periodic flooding. Over the next several years, explains Justice, funding will be sought to close these gaps. Additionally, a $150 thousand grant from Save America’s Treasures, to be matched by the Park Service, will be dedicated to repairing the C&O Canal’s lockhouses.

A constant process, but one the worth of which was forever solidified by a man who, although enjoying a lengthy, decorated career - serving on the US Supreme Court for 36 years - continued to place nature first in his heart.

William Douglas led the way.

The walk continues.

Says Justice, “We’re so fortunate to have an absolutely wonderful historic, natural recourse like the C&O Canal.”

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