Four Wheels, 185 Miles, and a Mission

Writer Denise Kersten Wills grabbed a friend and donned a helmet to explore the length of the legendary C&O Canal


"Here we go!" I call out to Melissa, my traveling companion, as we begin pedaling on our three-day, 185-mile adventure. We're embarking on a bike ride along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which connects Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Md., and is preserved today as a national park, a place where history lovers—as well as runners and cyclists—commune with nature. Living in Washington, I have been eager to ride the length of the canal. Melissa is, you'll excuse the expression, along for the ride.

The C&O Canal, which runs parallel to the Potomac River, was conceived in the 1820s as an artery for trade. In 1954, a proposed highway threatened the waterway, which had sat dormant for three decades. But Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who believed the canal to be "a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the ­Capitol's back door," rallied public support to protect it, leading journalists and conservationists on an eight-day trek along its entire length, starting in Cumberland. In recognition of his efforts, the canal was dedicated to Douglas and remains the only national park dedicated to the memory of one person.

2010 Green Issue IconMelissa and I decide to replicate Justice Douglas' journey, albeit in the other direction. Though we'll be faster on our bikes, we've set aside BlackBerries and cell phones in search of the same quiet beauty he found. We're also seeking to learn more about the canal's rich history: The 20,000-acre park contains five percent of the historic structures in the entire national park system—more than 1,300 lock houses, aqueducts, dams, pump houses, and other vestiges of the nation's past.

The C&O at a Glance 

Begun: July 4, 1828

Completed: Oct. 10, 1850

Cost: More than $11 million

Work force: 4,000 strong at the height of construction

Years of Operation: 1850-1924

Peak Year: 1871, with 850,000 tons of coal transported

Source: National Park Service

Indeed, as we head out from Washington on the gravel towpath once used by mules to tug boats laden with goods, we pass relic after relic from the 19th century. My favorites are the lock houses, homes to scores of lock keepers who helped boats navigate a complex network of 74 lift locks. The quaint little houses may seem romantic today, evidence of a simpler, more peaceful time, but life here was tough. Lock keepers were on call at all times, listening for the captain's horn or call of "Hey … lock!" And though the keepers lived rent-free, they often had families of eight or 10 in spaces that look barely big enough for one or two.

By midmorning Melissa and I cross over into Maryland and arrive at Great Falls, one of the most spectacular sights near the canal. The falls became a tourist destination in 1831, when the canal company opened the Great Falls Tavern for visitors who took carriage rides out from the capital. Today the area is popular among camera-toting hikers.

It rained hard earlier in the week, and the towpath, already a bumpy ride, is still full of puddles. By lunchtime our legs are caked with mud. We'd planned to eat trail mix and drink the metallic-tasting water from pumps conveniently placed every five miles, but by the time we reach White's Ferry, around mile 35, we're ready for a hearty lunch.

We're pleased to discover that the ferry—which first started running in 1817—is still in operation. (It's the only remaining ferry on a river that once supported dozens.) Named after Confederate officer Elijah V. White, who owned a farm nearby and often led troops across the river at this site, White's Ferry today carries cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. We eat at a snack bar and watch the motorized transport shuttling vehicles across the Potomac to Leesburg, Va.

Our destination this day is Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown seized control of the U.S. armory in 1859 before being captured by Marines. We set off after lunch, feeling rested and glad we're more than halfway there. We pedal hard and say little, except to call out when we spot the small brown posts that mark each mile. We begin to anticipate the succession of markers—mile 43, mile 44, mile 45. The sight of each one in the distance elicits a small celebration.

For long stretches, the towpath is flat, straight, and surrounded by forest. At times we can't even see through the trees to the canal, which here remains empty of water and filled with undergrowth. The monotony and the aches we're beginning to feel—we're not used to sitting on bike seats for so many hours—do seem somehow appropriate, however, given the history of the canal's construction.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on Independence Day, 1828, President John Quincy Adams proclaimed that the canal project would be "a conquest over physical nature, such as has never yet been achieved by man." But when he attempted to turn the first shovel of earth, he surprisingly hit a rock, or a root. Whatever it was, his spade didn't make a dent. It took him two more tries to break ground.

It was the first of many setbacks, among them indentured servants who ran away, landowners who refused to give up rights-of-way, an outbreak of cholera, labor riots, and periodic floods. Building the canal was slow, grueling, and expensive. The C&O Canal Company had hoped to complete 100 miles in five years. But the canal didn't reach Cumberland until 1850—22 years later—and the project had consumed more than $11 million, almost triple the original allotment.

We're weary travelers when we approach Harpers Ferry in the early evening. The quaint town is perched at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and surrounded by steep, tree-covered hills. On the way to our hotel, we pass through the "lower town," where the National Park Service runs living-history museums in a 19th-century dry-goods store, a blacksmith shop, and other historic buildings. After dinner and a beer at an old-fashioned tavern, we're ready to tuck in early, exhausted and only slightly worried about how our legs will hold up for another 120 miles of American history.

Melissa and I devise a strategy at breakfast: ride more slowly and stop for a quick stretch every 10 miles—a plan that pays off as the morning breezes by.

We reach Williamsport, Md., around noon. At the intersection of Conococheague Creek and the Potomac River, Williamsport once flourished as a canal port. The barge captains may be long gone, but the town still clearly benefits from the presence of a waterway, with the towpath popular among bicycle tourists like us. We stop in at the Desert Rose Café for hummus sandwiches and smoothies, then walk into a bike shop across the street.

There we learn that a paved rail trail runs from Big Pool, Md., through Hancock, Md., our destination for tonight, and on for another 10 miles. At first the idea of leaving the towpath for a paved surface seems like cheating, but when we get to the start of the rail trail, it's beginning to rain, the towpath is full of bone-rattling potholes, and our muscles are in knots. It's a no-brainer.

We justify the diversion on the grounds that it puts us in the vicinity of the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line (located across the Potomac River) and thus gives us a taste of the real course of history. On the same day that the canal company broke ground in Washington, construction also began on the B&O Railroad. Thus started a great race to become the nation's primary gateway to the west. The canal and railroad paths converged at Point of Rocks, Md., then ran along parallel paths to Cumberland. The railroad handily won the race, arriving at Cumberland eight years before the canal and continuing to the Ohio River, the original planned destination for the canal as well.

It seems fitting that the paved rail trail is a smoother, faster ride than the canal towpath. Melissa and I practice pedaling no-handed, stretching our sore backs while rediscovering a childhood pleasure. We arrive in Hancock in high spirits, amazed that we've already covered two-thirds of the distance. Tiny Hancock is another reminder of the continued importance of the trail to the towns along it—we stay in a bed-and-breakfast that caters to cyclists—and dine at a down-home restaurant that specializes in pies.

The next morning, by the time we make it to the end of the rail trail, we're eager to get back onto the towpath—those perfectly smooth miles, a blessing yesterday, have started to seem boring compared to the rugged gravel. It's raining once again, and we become skilled at judging which mud puddles are shallow enough to splash painlessly through and which need to be skirted. The area seems especially remote here; we pass only the occasional rundown shack or abandoned farmhouse.

It's easier to spot wildlife in this less-traveled region. Melissa points out a furry rodent—surprisingly cute—that we later confirm is a muskrat. We also see cranes, deer, turtles, frogs, and a couple of small snakes. Though it wasn't designed for this purpose, the canal serves an important ecological function, providing a buffer along the Potomac, one of the Chesapeake Bay's largest tributaries. The hundreds of lush acres enclosed by the park contain forests and wetlands that absorb runoff and help protect the sensitive watershed.

It's amazing that all this was once threatened. And that Justice Douglas led a hiking party of 58—geologists and ornithologists, journalists and conservationists—along this route in 1954. The going was far from easy. His group encountered a late-March snowstorm on one of the first days, near Paw Paw, Md., and Douglas—who was 55 years old—set a punishing pace of more than 20 miles a day. Only nine trekkers made it the whole way. The voyagers even composed a song that included this verse: "The knees are slowly playing out / The arches start to drop; / If we had John Brown's body here, / We'd like to make a swap."

Still, their hike was a resounding success. Time magazine did a story, and newsreel footage played in movie theaters. Public sentiment swung in favor of preserving the canal, The Washington Post (which had endorsed the proposed highway) reversed its position, and in 1971 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park was created.

For us, the miles now start to roll by fast. "On to Paw Paw" is our motto—we know that once we pass through the famous Paw Paw Tunnel at mile 155, we'll be in the home stretch. The tunnel, though eerily dark, is by far the most impressive architectural feature along the canal. The canal builders constructed it to save five miles of travel. With characteristic optimism, they estimated that construction would take two years. The project ended up taking 12 years, requiring nearly six million bricks, and costing more than $600,000—a fortune in those days.

Once we're through, a mild melancholy sets in—our adventure is coming to a close. Soon Cumberland appears in the distance, a perfect little town tucked next to the mountains. When we arrive, I get the same rush of emotion I felt at the finish line of my first marathon—a blend of pride, astonishment, and early-onset nostalgia. I send a silent thank-you to Douglas for his efforts to save this lovely, history-rich swath of land, and wonder if this is how he felt upon finishing his hike.

"I can't believe we made it," I tell Melissa.

"Let's do it again next year," she says.

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