Hancock: Hancock to Lock 56 via the C&O Canal and the Western Maryland Rail Trail
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These itineraries, “Canal Towns: In the Shadows of the Civil War,” were developed, in part, with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. Photographs were provided by Judy Olsen Photography unless otherwise noted.
Europeans began arriving in the Hancock area as early as the 1730s. With the arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) a century later, followed by a toll road connecting to the National Road, followed by the railroads, the town of Hancock boomed between the early 19th and early 20th centuries.
On these journeys in the Hancock area learn about the town’s history, including the Battle of Hancock during the Civil War. Walk or bike along the C&O Canal, an important dividing line during the war. Hancock is also the midway point for the Western Maryland Rail-Trail, and together the two trails offer the perfect round-trip exploration.
Itinerary 3: Hancock to Lock 56 via the C&O and W. MD Rail-Trail
This full-day itinerary explores the C&O Canal towpath and Western Maryland Rail-Trail, from the town of Hancock to Lock 56, about 11.5 miles west.
Exploring the C&O Canal Towpath
Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal began in 1828 with a ceremony featuring President John Quincy Adams. The bold project would enhance commercial trade between Washington, D.C., and points west—all the way to the Ohio River. But in 1850 canal construction stopped at Cumberland, MD, in the wake of numerous difficulties. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had arrived three years earlier, and the B&O replaced the canal as the primary mover of goods. Today the towpath is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, offering 184.5 miles of recreation by foot, bicycle, or horse (permits may be required).
Little did anyone know in 1828 that both the B&O Railroad and canal would become part of a battleground in a war that would divide the nation years later. As you travel along the towpath, imagine what it must have been like here during the Civil War. The Potomac River and the canal were frequently crossed by troops from both sides on the way to and from various campaigns. Troops traded volleys across the water, and smaller battles erupted here and there along its banks. Confederate troops confiscated boats, destroyed locks, and raided supply stores.
You can read more about the many skirmishes that took place near Hancock during the war in the “Pocket Guide to the Civil War on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal” and the book “Trembling in the Balance: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal During the Civil War,” both available at C&O Canal visitor centers.
Even though you’ll be heading west along the towpath on this itinerary, be sure to stop by the C&O Canal visitor center (439 E. Main St.), which is based in beautiful house that dates to around 1780. Two rooms on the ground floor showcase early photographs and the history of both the house and canal. Ask the ranger for a short tour (Memorial Day weekend–Oct, 9 am–4:30 pm, Fri–Tues).
Outbound (West) Along the C&O Canal
Miles represent towpath mileage.
Mile 124.1 Hancock
Park in the lot between Williams Street and Taney Street. One block west, C&O Bicycles will have everything you need for a bike journey, including rentals and repairs. You can also rent a bed in a bunkhouse here and get a hot shower.
Alternatively, park at the south end of Church Street where it meets the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. From here, look up the hill toward St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. There on the hill, and from Main Street, Union troops defended the town in the Battle of Hancock on January 5–6, 1862. During the brief skirmish, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops advanced on the town hoping to take control of the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The battle was the first of Jackson’s Romney Campaign.
The day before the shelling began, Jackson sent his cavalry commander Turner Ashby with a truce flag to try to persuade Gen. F.W. Lander to surrender Hancock. Lander refused. Only an estimated 75 to 100 shots were fired—the cold, wintry weather being a major factor. The Union maintained control of the town but the Episcopal church was badly damaged, as was the Presbyterian church just down the hill on Main Street. (The Presbyterian Church has a cannonball lodged in the front of the building.)
Cross the bridge to reach the towpath and head west (right).
Mile 127.2 Devils Eyebrow
This unique geological formation is an exposed rock strata, which was thrust upward millions of years ago to form an anticline. The soft calcium soils below the anticline have eroded, forming a shallow cave.
Mile 127.5 Round Top Cement Works
The ruins of the old cement works are striking against the cliff face. You can see the remains of eight kilns once used to burn lime to ash. Mill foundations and the smoke stack are also visible. During the Civil War, the plant was Hancock’s largest employer, providing jobs for 100 people. The mill suffered from numerous fires until a final blaze in 1903 shuttered the doors for good. The discovery of Portland cement, stronger and slower setting, helped hasten the plant’s demise.
The area on the cliff above is part of Round Top Wildlife Management Area, home to a collection of rare plants and animals that thrive in this geologically unique part of the state.
Mile 129.7 Sir Johns Run
Across the Potomac River here Brig. Gen. John Imboden fought with Union troops protecting the B&O Railroad bridge.
Mile 133.6 Cacapon Junction
Across the river is a stone-arch bridge built for the B&O Railroad. Stonewall Jackson’s troops burned the original during their attack on Hancock in 1862.
Mile 134.2 Dam 6 & Lock 55
You can see remnants of the earthen dam jutting into the river. Wooden cribbing once held the dam together. Confederates attacked both the dam and locks here in attempt to sabotage Union supply lines along the canal. Great Cacapon, WV, across the river, was also fired on by Confederate troops stationed on Cacapon Mountain.
From here you can cross over to the Western Maryland Rail-Trail or continue west along the C&O Canal towpath as far as you like.
Inbound (East) Along the Western Maryland Rail-Trail
The Cumberland Extension of the Western Maryland Railway arrived in Hancock in December 1904 and was both a passenger and freight line. Today, roughly 23 miles of the abandoned corridor—the Western Maryland Rail-Trail (WMDRT)—are paved for non-motorized recreation. The rail-trail follows a wooded corridor through scenic mountains and views from rocky cliffs above the Potomac River. Along the way interpretive signs discuss both the cultural and natural history of the area.
From Lock 55, you can continue another 2.5 miles to the western terminus of the WMDRT at Pearre (PARE-ree) Station. Nearby is the historical Woodmont Lodge (11761 Woodmont Road). The property once served as a private premier rod and gun club but is now operated by Fort Frederick State Park and Maryland’s Wildlife & Heritage Service. The 1930s stone lodge is periodically open to visitors and is worth a look. For more information, contact Fort Frederick State Park at (301) 842-2155.
Return to Hancock via the paved rail-trail for a nice alternative to the C&O Canal towpath.