William O. Douglas and the C&O Canal


(This column was first published in the April 4, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


There is much to see in our nation's capitol the many monuments, the Smithsonian, the cherry trees, the National Arboretum, the capitol buildings, the White House, Arlington Cemetery, the list goes on and on.


But there is another wonderful attraction for naturalists and hikers too little known to visitors. It is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park that stretches along the Potomac River from Washington to Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of 184.5 miles. I have visited many sections of this park and hiked and biked a few dozen miles of its trails. Based on my experiences, I highly recommend it.


The history of this park is especially interesting. The C&O Canal was planned at the same time as our Erie Canal (President Washington favored it over the Erie) but was only completed as far as Cumberland in 1850,  26 years after the Erie opened. That was the end of C&O continuous construction, although short sections were completed further west. The Ohio in its title clearly represented wishful thinking undone by the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania.


Used mostly to bring coal to the capitol, the canal was beset with problems. Floods devastated it in 1877 and 1889 and finally put it out of business permanently in 1924. The federal government bought it in 1938 and in 1950 initiated plans to convert the property into a highway.


In January 1954, the Washington Post editorialized in favor of the highway construction, drawing a famous response from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Here are passages from his letter:


In the early 20's Mr. Justice Brandeis traveled the canal and river by canoe to Cumberland. It was for him exciting adventure and recreation. Hundreds of us still use this sanctuary for hiking and camping. It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door - a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.

It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one's feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods, a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway.

And he ended with a challenge to the editorial writer:


I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.


The editors accepted, the hike undertaken and completed in an amazing eight days, Douglas leading the way at a vigorous four mile-per-hour clip. The event became a national news story, led the Post to reverse its editorial stance, influenced federal legislators and culminated in 1971 with the establishment of the national historic park.


Justice Douglas proved that one man can make a difference.


This is the 50th anniversary of that first hike and a commemorative hike is planned from Sunday April 18 in Cumberland to Saturday, May 1 in Georgetown. The places for through hikers have been filled but day hikers are invited to join the group. To learn more about the hike and associated events, see the C&O Canal National Park website and to learn more about the canal, see the C&O Canal Association website.-- Gerry Rising