Chris Cerniglia didn’t want her family’s house to be demolished and paved over for a highway. In the early 1950s, that seemed the likely fate of her family home alongside the C&O Canal near Lock 8 in Cabin John.
The canal stopped commercial operations in 1924, and by 1954, Congress had already studied and acquired land to build a national scenic highway along the 184.5-mile stretch between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Md.
Responding to a Washington Post editorial in favor of the highway, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a group of nine men on a hike along the entire length of the canal in March 1954, to demonstrate support for preserving the canal and its towpath. Then a teenager, Cerniglia remembers the hikers passing her house as they neared Washington. Thousands of supporters greeted Douglas and the other hikers, including Cerniglia’s family.
“My father was very much in favor of the government purchase of the canal,” Cerniglia said. “He didn’t want it becoming a highway.”
Eventually, Douglas, Cerniglia and other preservationists got their wish — the canal became a national historical park in 1971.
LAST WEEKEND, 70 members of the C&O Canal Association began a two-week through-hike of the towpath to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Douglas Hike. The hikers are scheduled to reach Montgomery County on April 29, the twelfth day of the hike. They will begin the final day at Great Falls Tavern and walk 14.3 miles to the Tidelock near the Watergate in Washington, D.C.
“We’re celebrating the walk that created a park,” said Cerniglia, who is now the president of the C&O Canal Association. “It’s just very, very important to honor the man who stood up and said, ‘Hey, let’s not make this a highway.’”
The C&O Canal Association holds anniversary through-hikes of the C&O Canal every five years. Pat White of Gaithersburg is hiking it for the fourth time, and she describes it as a walk from winter into spring. At the starting point in Cumberland, Md., most nights still feel like winter to the through-hikers – she encountered an inch of snow on a previous hike – but that changes as they near Washington, D.C. “Every day as you walk, more and more plants come into bloom,” White said.
White first visited the canal in 1974, when she and her family lived in Paoli, Pa. She has been a self-described “canal nut” since moving to the area, and is secretary of the C&O Canal Association.
“It’s magical. You can actually visualize yourself back 100 years,” said White, who has seen bobcats and wild turkeys in the upper portions of the towpath. “You all sorts of people. … It’s all along the length of the canal, not just in the Washington area. In Williamsport [Md.], you’ll find people walking after work or bicycling.”
Cerniglia’s favorite part of the towpath is the Seven Locks portion in Cabin John, where she grew up. “Whenever I’m stressed, I just go out there and take a long walk,” said Cerniglia, now a Rockville resident. “You can totally be away from the rest of the world. … There isn’t any part of it that isn’t wonderful.”
AS IN 1954, many hikers hope to raise awareness of the canal and its needs on the anniversary hike. With hundreds of historical structures from aqueducts to locks to lockhouses in the parkland along the canal, the Park Service must choose its restoration battles. Demonstration of public support for a restoration project helps obtain congressional funding — projects restoring the Monocacy Aqueduct and the towpath at Widewater received federal funds only after private citizens or groups made challenge grants.
Major restoration projects in the park near Great Falls include restoring of the towpath along the Widewater area of the canal, and replacing the Canal Clipper boat that interpreters operated between Great Falls Tavern and Swains Lock until irreparable damage to the hull sank the boat last spring.
The Canal Clipper was a popular attraction for park visitors at Great Falls, but Gray and Cerniglia believe that other projects are higher priorities for federal funding. Seven Locks Elementary School will hold a canal walk in early May to help raise funds.
“We’re hoping that there will be enough local-level support that we won’t have to take it on a major project. … But of course we support it,” Cerniglia said.
Both Gray and White believe the park’s top priority needs to be restoring the towpath along Big Slackwater, 86 miles up the towpath near Antietam Battlefield. Big Slackwater area was passable as recently as 1994, but floods two years later and Hurricane Isabel last fall have rendered the area virtually inaccessible, forcing hikers and bikers to go on a detour on narrow country roads.
“[The canal] is a precious resource that we do have to take care of – it’s currently broken in half,” said White.
Gray said the damage along Big Slackwater is an example of the nation’s failure to treat its national parks with respect. “Well-funded national parks would… not allow dangerous situations to exist,” she said. “It is the only break in the towpath, and it is very dangerous in the current situation. … We are very much afraid that someone will get killed on those county roads.”