Harpers Ferry Stories and Tips

Travel in History's Footsteps along the C&O Canal

The C&O Canal Photo, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

I’ve always felt a special connection to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which stretches from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, taking in some of the most beautiful and historical sights of this part of the country en route. I live only 4 miles away from the canal, near Edward's Ferry, and have spent countless hours hiking, biking, and horseback riding along its towpath.

The year I was born – 1954 – was the year that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (no relation, much as I’d like to claim him) penned a famous letter challenging the editor of the Washington Post to walk the length of the 184.5-mile-long canal with him. Douglas was championing the preservation of canal, which had been slated for conversion into a roadway. In Douglas’ letter, he presented a lyrical case for the preservation of the canal and towpath:

"It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one's feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods, a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway…

One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; he would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour." When his letter was printed in the Post, the walk that Douglas proposed became something of a cause célèbre, with dozens of people, including noted conservationists, participating. Douglas went on to chair the C&O Canal Association, which worked to preserve and adapt the canal for recreational use. In 1971, the C&O Canal was made a National Historic Park, with its headquarters established in Sharpsburg, only a few miles from Harpers Ferry.

The C&O has a fascinating history, beginning with George Washington’s proposal to create a "Potowmack Canal," up through the long digging of the Canal from 1828 to 1850 – 22 arduous years of back-breaking hand labor by as many as 4,000 men at the peak years of construction. The inherent challenges of the project were compounded by difficult terrain, labor disputes, disease, and legal battles over land rights. Worse, by the time the canal barges were up and running, they proved no match for a newer form of transportation – the railroads. The canal was finally closed in 1924, when it was severely damaged by a flood, but it was competition from the B&O Railway that truly brought about its end.

Today, walking along the canal with no sounds other than the rustle of squirrels among the leaves, the what cheer! what cheer! call of cardinals, and the murmur of the nearby Potomac river, it’s easy to imagine what the canal was like in the mid-19th century. Many of the canal’s 74 locks and lock houses are still standing. I like to imagine the lives of the men, women, and children who worked on the canal during its heyday, towing coal on narrow barges pulled by mules, sleeping in cramped quarters on their barges, and making the 7-day trip from one end of the canal to the other, usually working 18 hours or more a day.

Being, for the most, part level and straight, the canal is an easy place to bike or hike, but it’s also a great place for bird-watchers and nature lovers of every stripe. One of our favorite times to walk is after dark on the night of a full moon. We almost always hear owls hooting as we share the trail with nocturnal creatures such as possums and deer. (Alas, in recent years, the Park Service has put up signs indicating the canal is closed after dark, though there’s no practicable way they can "close" the 184.5-mile-long towpath.)

Some sections of the canal are dry, while others contain water, and the latter sections are popular with canoeists and kayakers. Sometimes, too, when the Potomac floods, it carries water, and countless hapless fish, over into the canal. One memorable afternoon, we found dozens of huge carp thrashing about in the canal, in water only inches deep. They’d gotten trapped there after the Potomac overflowed its banks and then receded.

On that occasion, my husband Jack, a friend, and I spent several hours catching slimy carp by hand and then lugging them across the stretch of woods, separating the canal and the river. A number of fish expired, however, which led to a frenzied round of fish-gutting, cleaning, and filleting that evening, an operation I insisted take place outdoors. Curious passers-by stopped to gawk at the monstrous fish laid out like battle fatalities on our front lawn. With more fish than we knew what to do with, we began giving them away, though not one of the recipients – or ourselves, for that matter - had any real notion of how to best cook the beasts.

I have a favorite stretch of the canal not far from where the Potomac joins the Monocacy River. I make a special effort to go there early each spring to view the wildflowers. The best time for this is in late March or early April, when jack-in-the-pulpit, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, trillium, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, and a host of other flowers carpet the forest floor.

At Harpers Ferry, the canal’s Civil War history comes to the fore, and Civil War buffs are richly rewarded by walking along the canal here. One of John Brown’s men, John Cook, posed as a lock tender as he worked as a spy, gathering information prior to Brown’s abolitionist uprising. When the rebellion failed, Cook and three other conspirators were hung for treason.

Since the Potomac River constituted a physical barrier between the north and south and the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad were the major supply arteries to the capitol, the entire region became the target of Confederate raids. John Singleton Mosby, Elijah V. White, Jubal Early, Jesse McNeill, and others waged guerilla warfare along this border region. You can’t travel far on the C&O without running into a reminder of these times, whether it be at White’s Ferry just outside Poolesville, where I live, or at Sharpsburg, which saw the bloodiest day of the Civil War on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.

There are thousands of stories and hundreds of historical events associated with the canal and nearby Potomac River. But the beauty of the canal’s towpath is what draws most modern visitors. The Park Service does an admirable job of keeping the towpath free of obstruction and in good repair, while the surrounding green corridor of parkland assures plentiful wildlife to observe. Near Harpers Ferry, the Appalachian Trail crosses the C&O towpath, the two much-beloved long-distance walking routes briefly bisecting.

There are dozens of places to access the C&O Canal, but the Park Headquarters in Sharpsburg is as good a starting point as any, perhaps better, as you can get a good historical overview. All you need are sturdy shoes and perhaps some bug spray to enjoy one of the best walking/biking trails this side of the Continental Divide.

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