Canal History: William O. Douglas’s Walk to “Save” the Canal

If not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, much of the C&O Canal and precious historical resources, including the town of Harpers Ferry, could be under water today.

After World War II, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a plan that would build 14 dams on the Potomac that would flood huge areas of the river valley including much of the Canal, its towpath, and historical buildings all along the way. The historic section of Harpers Ferry would also succumb to the flooding.

Another plan for the Canal was to turn it into a parkway, much like the Skyline Drive. Although the parkway idea wasn’t as developed, it found supporters and was eventually endorsed by The Washington Post in 1954.

But Justice Douglas had other ideas. He saw the Canal and towpath as a National Park property that could be restored and enjoyed by all. In a letter to The Post, he challenged the editors to walk with him the entire length of the towpath. Nine editors made the entire journey from Cumberland, and The Post revised their plan—recommending a parkway ALONGSIDE the towpath.

The fate of the Canal was still uncertain as both the parkway and a scaled back system of dams continued to be considered. Finally, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was designated a National Historical Park in a law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971.