The C&O Canal was once a working canal, built with tremendous difficulty, to follow the Potomac River. The Potomac is a shallow rocky river and did not allow boats of any size to move upstream from Washington D.C., so the canal was conceived as a way to moved goods upstream into the growing country.
John Adams dug the first ceremonial shovel of dirt, and for most of the next 50 years, work went on in simultaneous sections. The various sections were built using mules, pulleys, and black powder for explosives. It took longer and cost way more that anyone estimated, pretty much like most government projects. It took so long that steam engines came into use, and railroads were being built. By the time the canal sections were completed and joined in 1850, opening the way as far as Cumberland, Md., the railroad was already there. Plans to build a canal to join the Ohio river were abandoned, and the canal was put to use moving goods up to Cumberland, and moving coal to Washington DC.
In 1924, a flood damaged the canal, washing out sections, wrecking some of the locks. It was never a very profitable operation, and this ended it. The government took ownership of the canal right of way. In the 1960s, they made it a park. Here’s a link to the official website. The story of the building and operation of the canal makes for some interesting reading, it is a true piece of American history.
I had hiked parts of the canal as a Boy Scout. When our sons were old enough, we decided that we had the skills and equipment to bicycle it as a family. The logistics of getting 6 people, bicycles, tents, food, and gear to the trail, then getting all of that back at the other end of the canal is daunting. The internet was not yet a major resource when we planned this trip, and I used the old Boy Scout guide to the canal as a planning tool.
Today there are sites like this one, C&O Canal Bicycle Planning Guide, to help you organize your trip.
The northern section of the towpath is remote. It follows the Potomac River out of Cumberland and seems to fall into the land that time forgot. It was the best part of the trip. Very little evidence of modern life intrudes. The old stone locks and bridges, the woods and river, are all there is to see.
We had the boys to consider, and we broke up the canal into sections, so it took us 8 days, in 3 different trips, to complete. It was the most adventurous trip we attempted as a family when the boys were young. Cycling along the path in the day, camping along the Potomac, everything we had loaded on the bicycles, it was a trip outside of the ordinary.
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.