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A Trip Back in Time Along Bends in the Potomac River

Potomac River railraod bridge by Tom Pelton.JPG

In Western Maryland, about 20 miles east of Cumberland, the Potomac River twists and winds in a series of scenic and dramatic hairpin turns, wandering between rocky cliffs and forested mountain sides. It’s called the Paw Paw Bends.

If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all this summer and explore remote wilderness – without ever leaving Maryland – I recommend kayaking and camping along this spectacular stretch of the Potomac River.

The northern side of the river features a hiking and biking trail and several camping and boat launch sites that are open to the public because they are part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park. The canal, built in the 1820’s through 1840’s, follows much of the river’s rocky route along 185 miles of the Potomac from Washington to Cumberland.

The exception is at the Paw Paw Bends. These S-curves are so backwards-leading and framed by sheer rock, that the canal’s builders thought it would be quicker and easier to avoid them and just dynamite a tunnel straight through a half mile of the Appalachian Mountains.

Quick and easy, it was not. A tunnel project that was supposed to take only two years ended up dragging out over 14 years – so long that the whole enterprise suffered riots among workers, landslides, and the bankruptcy of the construction company.

By the time the Paw Paw Tunnel was completed, in 1850, a competing transportation project, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, had already reached Cumberland eight years earlier.

That made the C & O canal a technological dinosaur before it was even born.

Today, padding through the Paw Paw Bends of the Potomac River is like a trip back in time.

I set out in a kayak on a recent morning, downstream from the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. I quickly found myself surrounded by nothing but thick forests of sycamores and boxelders, growing on steep slopes flanking the river.

As the river clocked east, and then west, and then east again, the sun blazed in my eyes, then on the back of my neck, then in my eyes again. Jagged, rocky cliffs loomed high over the olive green waters. Dragonflies darted and chased each other over the smooth current.

A train rumbled past, behind the trees along the riverbank. I noticed that railroad bridges arch over the Potomac at several places here – not because there are several different railroad lines, but because the same single track must span the curving waterway repeatedly to go in anything like a straight line.

Near the end of my voyage, I saw one railroad bridge that looked like it could be 150 years old. Its weather-stained cement bases rose up from a tangled mass of logs and other flood debris to hold aloft a rusty architecture of triangles and tracks that soared over the C & O canal, beside the river.

The contrast between the tracks and canal reminded me of the life-altering technological changes witnessed by Western Maryland and the world: with canals killed off by railroads, and then by highways. Truckers on those highways may soon be replaced by driverless trucks. The last paper mill in Western Maryland closed on the banks of the Potomac not long ago – with its almost 700 jobs washed away by the Internet.

The river of change does not flow straight, but its current is swift and merciless.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.