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Exploring The History Of The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail

Tom Pelton

It was a hot Friday afternoon, with mounds of white clouds in a dazzling blue sky, and I was hiking along the gravel of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail in Western Maryland. 

To my right, down a steep, wooded embankment flowed the waters of the Potomac River. The river here, at a place called the Paw Paw Bends, twists and snakes in five horseshoe-shaped turnarounds within a six-mile stretch.

To the left of the trail is a muddy ditch, spouting with wetlands plants. It’s all that’s left of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal was built from 1836 to 1850 to carry coal and other goods from the Appalachian Mountains 184 miles down to Washington, D.C.

I pass a stand of sycamores trees, and suddenly, up ahead, I see something dramatic:  The gaping mouth of an ancient-looking tunnel, carved from rock to allow the canal and trail to pass through the mountains.

This is the entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel -- in my view, one of the most amazing places in Maryland for hikers and nature lovers to visit, and a gem in the chain of scenic wonders that line the C & O Canal Trail National Historic Park.

In the still, clear water at the edge of the black tunnel, fish swarm, a painted turtle paddles, and frogs sing.

In a nearly catastrophic effort, immigrant Irish and German laborers, working with only picks, mules, and dynamite, hacked their way through a half mile of mountain here from 1836 to 1850. They endured landslides, starvation wages, riots among workers, and the bankruptcy of the construction company.

The tunnel was designed as a short cut from to Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. around the impossible cliffs of the Paw Paw bends. The project was supposed to take two years, but ended up dragging on for 14.

In the end, the engineering nightmares in the Paw Paw Tunnel were so severe, the canal builders lost their great race against their competitors, the railroads, which were just getting started. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company beat the C & O Canal builders to Cumberland by eight years.

I start hiking through the tunnel, but have a hard time, because I failed to bring a flashlight.  It’s almost completely black inside the mountain, and there are holes in the trail beside the canal that make me trip and almost tumble into the water.  Trickles of water from the stone roof echo in the darkness.

When I finally emerge, stumbling, at the far end….

I am dazzled by the light and overcome by the beautiful scenery of the towering cliffs and trees jutting from the carved rock.

It makes me reflect: We should be profoundly thankful for the public lands and historic places like this that make Maryland truly the Land of Pleasant Living.  It didn’t have to be this way.  In fact, there was a proposal, back in the 1950’s, to pave over much of the C & O Canal trail and turn it into a highway.

But, as it turned out, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas lived nearby and happened to enjoy walking the trail. He was a staunch environmentalist and believed in the power of government action to make the world a better place for average people. He also believed in the inherent rights of trees, rivers, and other features of nature.

And so Douglas led a successful public crusade to defeat the Potomac highway project, saving some of the most unique public spaces in America.

Thank you, Justice Douglas. Your legacy and spirit live on…here on the C & O Canal Trail.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.