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A History of The Great Allegheny Passage and The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

by Richard Ellis

It was The General (even to his wife) who first saw the possibilities of connecting the Chesapeake to the Great Lakes. Having returned to his Mt. Vernon estate after the war, Washington had ordered his slaves to hack away boughs and chisel the bluff to free up the view upon his beloved Potomac. Yet its earthy red hue, that lazy muscularity borne of the Virginian soil, was no idle distraction; instead, it demanded harnessing as “the binding agent, the tether” that might hold the fragile United States together.33Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West New York, Simon & Schuster: 2004. p.9 In 1785, after an exploratory trip with his companion Dr. James Craik up the Potomac over the Allegheny mountains and down the Ohio River, he established the Potomack Canal Company and began work on creating a network of canals to connect Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland some 180 miles away. By 1802 five skirting canals had been constructed around the major falls on the Potomac and small gondolas paddled furs, lumber and flour and farm produce.

Yet man’s mastery of nature always encounters two obstacles: the refusal of nature to be dominated, and the insatiable lust of another man to overmaster that first man. For the Potomack Company it was the floods, unpredictable waters and limestone sinkholes of the river that drove them into administration, while their successors, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (est. 1828), who completed construction of the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland in 1850, found themselves forever harried by the ravenous steampunkers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company. The cinder dinkies reached Cumberland 8 years before the canal did, and set off full pace for Pittsburgh, thwarting the plans of the C&O company to complete George’s original vision, threading this ribbon of national unity beyond the Alleghenies, holding east and west together.

But the canal was a marvel. 74 locks helped it dance up the 605ft elevation difference between Washington and Cumberland along its 184 mile route. Circuses with black bears cruised the section between Oldtown, Maryland and Harpers Ferry. While English miserablist Charles Dickens, having missed out on the top bunk, was not so distressed by the nightmarish approach of his upstairs neighbour’s sagging behind (the ‘Dickensian aspect’) that he couldn’t take pleasure in the sights and smells of the Potomac. Maverick canaler Raleigh Bender of Sharpsburg, Maryland held the speed record—taking all of 62 hours heading upstream.44Tales of his niece Mary navigating locks while his less speedy brother Charles Bender lolled drunkenly on the side of their boat [see Doyle, Vernell and Tim Doyle. Images of America: Sharpsburg, Charleston, Arcadia: 1999. p.108] might best be relived in the drinking hole bearing his name today on Main Street in Sharpsburg. And in 1871 over a million tons of coal slaked their way down to the nation’s capital from the pits of Ohio. But little went back up: some oysters, a few barrels of salted fish (but no empire was ever built on herring), and a largely one-way canal was doomed to economic distress.

And then there was the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, incessantly competitive, ever prone to litigation. The first eruption with the Chesapeake canal was in 1833 over a rights-of-way issue in the narrows of the Potomac Valley at Point of Rocks. The clue is in the name. It was an Odyssean ‘worst of two evils’ narrative: the Scylla of corporate takeover perched on one bank, the Charybdis of wanton recklessness, and the emetic aftertaste of bankruptcy on the other. The canal sailed close to the latter, and persevered with its endeavor, throwing caution and profit to the wind. But Scylla still came and scooped up what was left, and in 1889 the Baltimore and Ohio railroad stepped in when the storm passed, took over control of the canal and set the seal on its demise. For it was always a matter of rights of way: the canal was a boondoggle for B&O’s desire to frustrate the ambitions of its rival, the Western Maryland railroad company, and after several more floods the canal limped to its commercial death in 1924.

It’s here then that we move beyond the treacherous waterways and onto that lucrative ironclad corridor between Cumberland and Pittsburgh, later to become known as the Allegheny Passage. Today its 150 miles represent a shining patchwork of rails-to-trails-joined-up-thinking-elephant-chain-conga-line-synergy. A veritable tunnel through time and space, encompassing the Mason Dixon line and the Eastern Continental Divide. And in a conservational pincer movement between the Pennsylvania Commonwealth and the National Parks Service, the General’s vision of a tether between the midwest and DC is now a free for all, a 334 mile shingle umbilicus holding the past and future together. For the Baltimore and Ohio railroad behemoth couldn’t stop at canals, but slowly began to eviscerate its competitors for the Pittsburgh export market. The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad joined forces with Western Maryland, but B&O came sniffing, and by 1975, under the auspicious corporate smokescreen of its feline logo, B&O’s ‘Chessie’ railroad amalgamated the lines that had previously run in parallel, at times very close to one another. In doing so, the obsolescent grades pondered a new future as a wastebasket for smore droppings, sorry I meant to say an idyllic oasis for bikers, hikers and ramblers.

And today, whether you race its entire length, or hide in its tunnels, getting smoked out like mischievous naval captains were in the late nineteenth century in the amazing 3000ft Paw Paw tunnel on the C&O canal (restored and open for hedonists today), you’re part of that original vision. Washington’s panoptic fantasy still needs its pragmatic avatars, though, unafraid to bore through rocks, mulching a new grammar upon the trail, taking a stance. For it was only when such revolutionary insiders as Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas hiked the entire C&O canal in 1954 to galvanize public opinion against his employers’ plan to transform the route into an automobile parkway that its future was secured. And it is a future forever freighted with the spectre of what and who went before, and the alternate trajectories hidden in between.55Legend has it that the ghosts of civil war soldiers from the battle of Ball’s Bluff, together with their canine companion, prevented canalers from tying up at ‘Haunted House Bend’.

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