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The C&O Canal required 22 years to build, never reached past Cumberland, and was only profitable for a relatively short period of time. Still, thousands of workers might have found satisfaction in knowing the Canal they built has become a 184.5-mile recreational resource that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
It wasn’t always going to be that way. The abandoned Canal was ignored for many years after it stopped operation in 1924. After World War II, one proposal to dam the Potomac River and another to create a parkway would have each destroyed the Canal. A third idea emerged that would create a linear park and walkway along the towpath. The park proposal wasn’t finding much support until Chief Justice William O. Douglas invited editors of The Washington Post to experience the walk. The editors endorsed the park approach shortly afterwards.
Variations of all three proposals continued to be considered for years. Finally, in 1971, President Richard Nixon designated the Canal a National Historical Park. Since that time, the Park Service has worked hard to restore the towpath and many Canal structures. It continues to attract hikers, bikers, horse riders, fishermen, nature lovers and historical preservationists.
You can read a much more detailed account of the Canal's history here or use the map below to explore that history for yourself!