An Engineering Wonder
The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, winding seventy-seven miles through Washington County, has played a major role in the transportation history of the county. On July 4, 1828, the groundbreaking ceremony took place. John Quincy Adams, President of the United States, turned over the first shovel full of dirt. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was one of a network of American canals dug during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, forming water highways for commercial trade. These Canals were part of the great Industrial Revolution. The C&O Canal worked as a counterpart for the mighty but unnavigable Potomac River, linking Cumberland, Maryland with the nation's capital. The Canal did this by using an orderly system of locks that permitted heavily laden coal boats to pass through successively on lower levels from the mountains to tidewater. The mule teams that pulled the boats along the canal walked on the towpath, guided by the families of the boat captains.
Tragedy, death, and destruction were all associated with the construction of this new modern travel. An outbreak of cholera killed hundreds of workers. Day in and day out, rioting among the Irish and German workers was too much. A lot was at stake. Disastrous flood waters occurred in the Canal's history.
In the end, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal cost $11,290,000 to create.
The C&O Canal has played an important part during the Civil War, transporting troops and supplies to aid the Army.
The C&O Canal's major competitor was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which broke ground the same day of the same year as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Just as the C&O ran beside the Potomac, the railroad ran beside the C&O Canal and soon made boat traffic an outmoded system when compared to the speed of rail transport. The C&O and other American canals could not compete against such modern progress and fell into disuse by the early 20th century. However, the flood of May 1924 brought an end to the history of the Canal as a waterway for the transport of supplies. Now woodsmen and hikers use the towpath. Over the years, storms and floods washed away parts of the banks and structures surrounding it; trees grew in what was the canal bed. The Board of Trustees abandoned its operations after the flood.
Because the canal was no longer commercially functional, there were plans in the 1950's to bulldoze it and pave a super-highway into Maryland's mountains.
However, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was one of the few people at the time who realized the historical, cultural, geological and botanical significance of the C&O. He challenged opinion-shapers of his day to walk the length of the 184-mile C&O with him and decide for themselves if it should be destroyed. Those people took the walk in 1954 and then immediately joined him in the effort to save the canal. That effort resulted in the formation of the C&O Canal Association, and, 17 years later, in the passage of legislation that created the C&O Canal National Historic Park, now one of the major areas in the National Park System. Because of his selfless act, In the mid 1970's, the canal and towpath were dedicated to Justice Douglas, honoring him for his singular contribution to the nation's park system.
The C&O Canal Association continues today with its mission of protecting, preserving and promoting the assets of the C&O Canal Historic Park.