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C&O Canal marks 45th anniversary of becoming a National Park

The C&O Canal’s rich history begins over 180 years ago with its infamous groundbreaking ceremony on July 4, 1828, but its life as a National Historical Park only began 45 years ago on January 8, 1971We are greatly indebted to the many individuals and organizations whose passionate and tenacious efforts saved the canal as “a highway for canoes…the towpath a country lane for hikers and cyclists…the lockhouses as hostels for winter use,” as envisioned by Irston R. Barnes, one of the canal’s unsung heroes, in 1953. Here is a brief overview of the Canal’s path to becoming a National Park.

1938 ~ 1949

The federal government purchased the C&O Canal’s property from the B&O Railroad in 1938 and immediately established two Civil Conservation Corps* camps which performed restoration work until April 1942 and November 1941. Beginning in July 1941, visitors to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Recreational Waterway, as it was called, were locking through Lock 4 on the mule-drawn Canal Clipper. But flooding in October 1942 damaged much of the restoration work and ended consideration of the possible restoration of the entire canal.  The possibility of using the canal for a parkway was increasingly raised and on June 10, 1948, a bill for a feasibility study of the C&O Canal parkway was signed into law.

1950 ~ 1955

On August 20, 1950, the Bureau of Public Roads’ Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Report was submitted to Congress, officially proposing a 24-foot wide parkway with eight-foot shoulders on each side from Great Falls to Cumberland. Opposition to the parkway was raised immediately by the Izaac Walton League of America in a letter to the National Park Service. The National Parks Association and Maryland’s Department of Forests and Parks followed suit, and in January 1953, an article by Irston R. Barnes, the president of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, was published in the Washington Post advocating for the restoration of the entire canal. A year later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ famous challenge to “walk the 185 miles to Cumberland” was also published in the Washington Post. Taking the public’s opposition to the parkway into consideration, the National Park Service revisited and restudied the development of the canal. Its July 1 progress report favored the development of the towpath as a hiking and biking trail and the development of the canal lands according to the “more flexible national recreation area concept.”

1956 ~ 1971

The next 14 years were marked by 4 failed attempts to get legislation for a C&O Canal National Historical Park through Congress. On January 18, 1961, President Eisenhower proclaimed the C&O Canal, between Seneca and Cumberland, a national monument. Unfortunately, because it appeared to be an assault on the prerogative of Congress, this act only spurred on the opposition. At long last, the hard work and dedication of hundreds of citizens and elected officials resulted in the successful passing of the bill in the 91st Congress.  President Nixon signed the bill into law on January 8, 1971.