Within its 20,000 acres, the park tells the story of 19th and 20th century America. It protects, of course, what was once an active transportation link between the coalfields of the Allegheny Mountains and the urban markets at the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. The significance of this connection was first appreciated by George Washington, who spent much of his private life surveying and speculating on land in the Potomac headwaters. He knew that linking the Potomac to the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh) would connect the young, coastal nation to the vast resources of the continental interior.
Though construction began in 1828, the canal wasn’t completed until 1850, several years after the B&O Railroad had already reached Cumberland. The canal couldn’t compete with rail in terms of speed or capacity, and so it was nearly obsolete from the time of its opening. Only bulk commodities, like lumber, wheat and especially coal, ever depended to any large extent on the canal for access to markets. Nevertheless, the canal operated (with only occasional interruptions in the wake of especially devastating floods) until 1924 when a damaging flood destroyed it beyond repair. People continued to live in cabins and shanties along the canal for another 45 years, until the national park was established in 1971. The canal’s transportation history is particularly evident along the stretch from Seneca to Georgetown where NPS has made an effort to keep it watered.
While the park provides an unparalleled glimpse into the history of the canal era, it is equally valuable, though far less appreciated, as a repository of the history of Native Americans, the Civil War and slavery, westward expansion, immigration, industrial development, the New Deal, and the conservation movement. All are important elements of the American experience.
The C&O Canal is blessed with an extraordinary collection of physical evidence of its rich history. Within the park can be found over 1,300 historic structures in various states of repair, ranging from sublime (the Paw Paw Tunnel) to ordinary (culverts) and from elaborate (Ferry Hill Plantation House) to rustic (over two dozen lockhouses). Floods, neglect, and even looting have taken their toll over the years. Even so, fully 5% of all historic structures within the entire National Park System are located in the C&O Canal NHP.
Ecology and Scenery
From an ecological standpoint, the canal is of incalculable value to the health of the Potomac River and, by extension, the Chesapeake Bay. The best way to protect the water quality of a river or stream is to protect the land around it from development, and the park provides a natural buffer along more than half of the entire length of the Maryland side of the river. The vegetative cover helps to filter and slow down the precipitation that runs off neighboring roads, parking lots, fields, and rooftops on its way to the river. Because the riverfront forest has regenerated in the years since the park was established, it now provides tremendous habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. The Park is also home to one of the east coast’s biodiversity “hotspots”: the Potomac Gorge. The Gorge is home to over 1,500 species, including nearly 200 that are listed as rare, threatened, or endangered. The ecological health and wealth of the river corridor is only possible by virtue of the park.
In addition, as a model of a largely intact riparian (riverside) forest buffer, the canal provides an incomparable scenic amenity to the people of the region. Potomac Conservancy has long called the Potomac River the “wildest urban river in the world” thanks to the abundance of trees found up and down the river corridor. Both Scenic Maryland and Scenic America have identified the Potomac River corridor, and the C&O Canal NHP, as a scenic treasure requiring constant public vigilance to protect it from potential encroachments.
Today, the C&O Canal is used by millions of visitors who come to stroll, hike, bicycle, birdwatch, paddle, rock climb, ski, skate, or otherwise enjoy the natural corridor provided by the abandoned canal and towpath. The preservation of this linear riverside park is remarkable in the context of the explosion of development and population growth in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and the eastern U.S. in general. Making it even more distinctive are the numerous connections to other trails and paths including the Capital Crescent Trail, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Western Maryland Rail Trail, the trail system in Green Ridge State Forest, and now the Great Allegheny Passage that connects Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cumberland. And in the past few years, considerable work has been done to establish a Potomac River Water Trail that depends on the access, campgrounds, and other facilities of the C&O Canal.