Riding the C&O Canal Towpath
One of the big cycling attractions of the Washington, DC region was pointed out to me before I even arrived here: namely, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath bikeway. Following the path of the canal through the Valley of the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, the route is now a National Historic Park that stretches for nearly 185 miles.
The canal was meant to boost the economic development of the region and was foreseen by such visionary real estate promoters as young George Washington, but it was not to become a reality until the first digging began on July 4, 1828, as President John Quincy Adams inaugurated the project. Ominously, it was also the day that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came into existence.
The Presidential Seal of Approval did not mean much as the canal took some 22 years to construct and by the time it finally opened in 1850 it was already obsolete. The grand idea of linking up to the Ohio River and opening up the West never came to pass and the canal remained a regional operation, moving coal primarily downstream, along with some agricultural produce. The canal boats generally returned unladen. As we were to notice, there are very few towns located along the canal and hence not much of a market. In its existence the canal was plagued by labour strife, the Civil War, multiple floods and financial losses and finally ceased operation in 1924.
The original Watergate
In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the bill making the C&O Canal a recreational park. In the 1950s there had been plans to flood the entire Potomac Valley from Great Falls all the way to Harpers Ferry. Before this could happen, some thought was given to turning the towpath into a paved scenic highway but this too never happened. Luckily more environmentally-minded types had influence. Near Mile 0 stands the ruins of the original watergate of the canal on the Potomac. A few hundred feet away is the hotel/apartment complex named after it, which was to have such impact on Nixon and American history.
At Mile 0
On Saturday, August 25th, I rode from Logan Circle down to East Potomac Park and followed the shore of the Potomac River westwards until I arrived at the Thompson Boat Center, where oarsmen (and women) were out on the water in their elegant racing shells. I took a few pictures and was soon joined by Dr. Chef, who was joining me on the big adventure. A few months ago I had persuaded him to buy a Fuji crossbike and now he was going on the first multi-day bike tour he had ever done. For my own part, I was riding Blackadder, my NYCBikes crossbike that I had built several years ago in the expectation that I would ride the towpath route but which I had not accomplish in the intervening time. After taking advantage of an excellent photo opportunity a the Mile 0 marker stone, we were off just after 9 am, riding up towards the Parks Service Visitors’ Center. There is a canal boat there for visitors to look at and we began to ride slowly along the towpath, heading west. We passed many old factories and warehouses from Georgetown’s Industrial Age, factories that had been supplied with water by the canal company to run water wheels and provide power.
We cruised along the shaded towpath, which was crushed gravel and dirt and pretty easy riding, but there were a lot of runners and other cyclists on this very hot and humid morning. We stopped briefly to look in at one of the lockkeepers’ houses, which has been restored. There was to be a house similar to this, or the ruins of one, at each of the 75 locks we were to ride by. Once the canal closed, the houses often continued to be used as residences for many years.
The Great Falls
Passing along with no inkling that the urban sprawl of Washington surrounded us, we continued past Seven Locks and soon found ourselves in Great Falls Park. Maryland’s Great Falls are a serious impediment to water traffic on the Potomac, with its rapids and rocks. The Great Falls Tavern is here, and it is also the only stretch where the canal is maintained as it was. Visitors can ride a canal boat and we had the opportunity to look at the Charles F. Mercer as it was towed by a pair of mules. In the old days, the maximum speed allowed on the canal was a blistering 4 miles per hour, so it is no surprise that it took a week for a canal boat to get from Cumberland to Georgetown, even going all night. As the Park Ranger in the boat was explaining to the visitors about the recreational uses of the C&O Canal, Dr. Chef shouted out to made sure he included “cycling” in the list of activities.
We left the mules and their drivers behind and continued on into the heat. Every so often we came across a small campsite where there was a water pump, so we were able to refill bottles as needed although the rust-coloured water was not very attractive. Our route took us past familiar names–Riley’s Lock, Edwards Ferry–where we often begin our rides with our racing bikes in the Poolesville area. Seneca is where much of the red sandstone used for the canal structures was quarried.
We came to White’s Ferry, which takes cars across the river to Leesburg, in the early afternoon. The sun was blazing hot and it was a bit of a shock to come out of the cool shade along the river to an open area. We stopped at the store for lunch and I poured down two bottles of ice tea almost immediately. There was a big line of cars waiting for the ferry when we headed back to the cool, or at least cooler, towpath.
After a while we were in a nice rhythm as we cruised the dirt path. In some places it was muddy and there were often sticks and forest debris, but I found that Blackadder, with his 35mm cyclocross tires, could handle the poor road surface very well. I, on the other hand, found that I had to change hand positions often as my wrists and palms were getting tired from the pounding. Dr. Chef was using a Camelbak and with all the jostling it looked like a better drinking solution than trying to use a normal water bottle.
A highlight of this day was crossing the Monocacy Aqueduct. There were 11 of these aqueducts, designed to carry the canal over creeks and tributaries of the Potomac, and this, at 560 feet, the longest and most elegant of them. It was made from pink quartzite taken from nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, another of our cycling landmarks. The aqueduct looks to be in pretty good condition, in spite of efforts in 1862 by the Confederates to blow it up.
The town of Point of Rocks, where the C&O and B&O fought it out over whether the canal or the railway would get the right-of-way, came next. I have ridden from here often into the Catoctin Mountains. We stopped for some drinks and I photographed the attractive Victorian railway station.
A few miles further and we crossed another aqueduct, the much smaller one over Catoctin Creek. Actually, there is only one arch left and you cross over on a Bailey Bridge erected by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. There are photos of the original acqueduct nearby but it appears that in spite of all the stone laying around there are no plans to reconstruct it.
Soon we passed the Blue Ridge and turning off the towpath we passed a huge number of people carrying inflated tubes. There was a big collection of buses and it was clear that this was a white water adventure centre. We rode past the group and after a mistaken turn headed up a big steep climb, taking us away from the canal and the river to our beds for the night at the hostel in Brunswick, Maryland.
We had just arrived there and about to register when a massive thunderstorm exploded around us. It was good timing and after we had enjoyed hot showers and some cold drinks, the storm had abated and we walked a short distance to the local restaurant for some genuinely unhealthy downhome food. The menu was not vegetarian-friendly but they served breakfast all day, so I enjoyed a huge cheese omelette with home fries, biscuits and onion rings on the side. And there were promotional t-shirts for the town’s Big Event: the Froggy Mud Bog, due to take place the next day.
Cyclists preparing to head south en masse
Foregoing the Mud Bog since we were generally riding in it, on Sunday, August 26th, we walked back to the restaurant for a massive breakfast. On the bikes again, our trip continued with a thrilling descent followed by some superhuman effort to schlep the loaded bikes over the railway tracks and through the swampy mud to get us back on the towpath. We should have just continued down the road further until a more suitable place to portage appeared but we were eager to go. Not that it made a difference, as within 2 miles Dr. Chef had the first flat of the trip as his back tire went soft
The Firehouse, Harpers Ferry
While he was doing repairs, I climbed up to the big bridge crossing the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, passing a lot of cyclists who were getting ready to ride south. Once the home of one of the United States Arsenals, Harpers Ferry is famous for abolitionist John Brown’s raid in 1857 when he attempted to seize the arsenal and incite a slave revolt. Unsuccessful, he and his man moved into the Arsenal’s fire station and were surrounded by US troops led by Robert E. Lee. Brown, described as a messianic figure, was tried and executed for treason within a week and the raid is seen as one of the matches lighting the fuse of the Civil War to come. Most of Harpers Ferry is now a museum administered by the Parks Service.
I rejoined Larry and as we continued our ride his front tube exploded after a few minutes. This was going to turn into a pretty long day! Repairs again went very quickly and we were off, passing over the aqueduct over Antietam Creek, a short distance from the famous battlefield. Progress was excellent until we had to stop and lift the bikes over a massive tree trunk that had been brought down by the big storm the night before at Milepost 71.
The towpath took us to Dam No. 4, at which point we had to take the Slackwater Detour as the towpath has apparently caved in. We immediately took a wrong turn and travelled north instead of east, as we had expected to do, so we had to return to Dam No. 4 and start over. Unfortunately the correct route required us to go up a very steep hill and then ride into a headwind for quite a while. We followed the road rather than go back to the towpath and turning left on Rt. 63 followed it to Williamsport. Dr. Chef and I have ridden the Cedar Ridge Century in this area twice before.
In Williamsport we located Tony’s Pizza and enjoyed a delicious pizza and a lot of ice tea, covered in splatters of mud as we were. Then it was a simple descent back to the canal. We looked at the Cushwa Basin and the big Conococheague Aqueduct, which has one side knocked out of it, before we rode off into the quiet countryside. Although there were many people around the Basin and the nearby Visitors’ Center, there was no crowd out on the towpath and we soon had Maryland entirely to ourselves yet again. Until we got to Dam No.5, where several people were fishing and others were admiring Lock Nos. 45 and 46.
The massive stone walls of Fort Frederick
We continued until Milestone 112 and took a break at the Fort Frederick State Park. There is a large stone fort here, a reconstruction of the one that stood here as a defence against Indian raiding parties. It had been built by the Colony of Maryland in 1755/56 and had a rather peaceful history, never being involved directly in any Indian attacks and seeing no action in the Revolutionary War. German mercenaries captured in the Battle of Saratoga were kept here, but were allowed to work at local farms. Their existence was subsequently forgotten and they simply blended into the local population. It was at Fort Frederick that Dr. Chef insisted on us photographing each other in the stocks in front of the gift shop.
We rode past Big Pool, a large natural pond that was used for turning canal boats around, and crossed over yet another aqueduct, this one over Licking Creek. We were riding parallel to Interstate 70 and could hear the traffic in our forest idyll. But we persevered and were rewarded with the town of Hancock at Mile 124. This stretched-out village boasts the Park-N-Dine Restaurant, where Dr. Chef insisted we go in and eat some ice cream. Then we went next door for some beer and picked up some submarine sandwiches to fortify us once we reached our destination. We also stopped at the bike shop in Hancock where I insisted that Dr. Chef buy another inner tube.
We had just left Hancock when I suddenly felt the air go out of my back tire, so it was time for yet another repair. I could not find anything that would have caused the hole in the tube so we installed a new one and hoped for the best. I pumped it up but soon realized that it needed more air, so with some additional effort it was up to a rideable inflation level. It was getting late in the day and we wanted to press on to Little Orleans so we picked up the speed.
The towpath has all kinds of wildlife. Besides the numerous herons we saw, and the turtles in the ponds, this area was full of deer, leaping and cavorting about. We watched carefully when they crossed the path as we did not want to have a collision.
Near Milestone 127 stands the impressive ruins of the Round Top Cement Company. The area produces excellent limestone so a cement mill was constructed here in 1838 and the cement it produced was used in the last 60 mile section of the canal, as well as the Washington Monument and the US Capitol. There were eight kilns and there were several fires over the years. A final catastrophic fire and the advent of cheaper Portland cement as competition saw the mill close for good in 1909.
At Mile 140.8 we came to the exit for our overnight destination, the Little Orleans Lodge. We were the only guests on this Sunday night. After hosing some of the mud off of our bikes, we got cleaned up and enjoyed our meal of subs and Heineken and Yuengling beer, along with the stories of our host Steve, before I suddenly realized that after 80 miles of hard riding I desperately needed to sleep. I was out for the count by 9:30 pm.
Monday, August 27th, and after an early breakfast we saw that there was fog all around. I tightened up the bolts holding the rack on Blackadder and pumped up the rear tire some more. Steve gave us a copy of the C&O Canal DVD and a book about the rail-to-trail route that runs from Cumberland to Pittsburgh and has just recently opened and we were on our way.
Although we were riding in the area known as the Endless Mountains, we had the usual view of canal, towpath and Potomac. We definitely had a good rhythm going by this our third day on the trail and we arrived at Mile 154.5 and saw a lock marked “63 1/3". A little further ahead and we found Lock No. 64 2/3. Apparently the canal company discovered it needed one less lock than expected and hence there is no Lock No. 65!
After this mathematical puzzle you find yourself riding in a narrow slate gorge and at Mile 155.2 you enter the Paw Paw Tunnel. A remarkable work that nearly bankrupted the canal company by itself, the tunnel, which is lined with 5.8 million bricks in 7 to 11 layers and is 3118 feet (950.37 m) long. It took 12 years to construct. It is one of the longest canal tunnels ever built and still have the original guard rails. I had a light on Blackadder and went ahead as we walked through the tunnel on foot. It was so dark that we did not feel confident about riding through it, even in a low gear.
Cumberland, the Queen City
Out in the fresh air again, we left behind the rocky landscape and had an uneventful ride for the next 30 miles or so and we rolled into Cumberland, Maryland and the end of the canal at around 1:15 pm. We celebrated with photos in front of a canal boat and then celebrated further with some snow cones. We had only to go around the corner to pick up our rental vehicle and were fortunate to be given a minivan. We hosed down the bikes one last time and loaded up the gear. Heading west on I-68, we retraced some of our route but this time could see the impressive green mountains all around us as we headed towards Hagerstown, where we turned south on I-70, passing Hancock, and stopped briefly in Frederick for some good beer and food. The traffic was light and I dropped Dr. Chef off in Rockville before returning the van to the rental people at the Reagan National Airport. Then I found my way out onto the bikepath on the George Washington Parkway and rode home on Blackadder.
The end of the trail
We had had a terrific trip and saw many new things. The weather had been cooperative and we learned that 300 kms on dirt roads is a lot harder riding than 300 kms on asphalt. And I was struck by the tranquillity and beauty of this part of the United States and would highly recommend it for anyone. Well, as long as you have knobby tires on your bike!