C & O Canal National Historic Park Overview

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Stretching 184.5 miles alongside the Potomac River between the nation's capital and Cumberland, Maryland, the C & O Canal National Historical Park preserves remnants of America's transportation history. For nearly a century the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was the lifeline for communities and businesses along its route as it floated coal, lumber, grain, and other products to market.

Laborers began digging with picks and shovels in 1828. When finished 22 years later, the waterway averaged 40 to 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep and included hand-hewn stone aqueducts and a remarkable 3,118-foot long brick-lined tunnel. Seventy-four lift locks adjusted water levels for a 605-foot difference in elevation between the western terminus in the mountains and tidewater in the east.

Sections opened for navigation as they were completed: Georgetown to Seneca in 1831; then to Harpers Ferry in 1833; to near Hancock in 1839; and finally to Cumberland in 1850. All the while, the canal was competing with a powerful new form of transportation. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had begun its East-West route on the same day as the canal, but it reached Cumberland first. Handicapped by dry spells, floods, and winter freezes, the canal could not match the speed and dependability of its rival. Loss of business to the railroad and costly flood damage combined to close the canal in 1924.

Today, information centers at Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, located around Milepost 13, Hancock, and Cumberland tell the history of the C & O Canal. Mule-drawn boats carry park visitors on canal waters at Georgetown and at Great Falls. The remains of locks, lock houses, and other features along the way also tell the story.

Visitors can enjoy the canal park as much for nature and recreation as for its history. The towpath, once used by mule teams, now provides a nearly level trail for hikers and bicyclists along the entire canal route. Mile markers starting at Georgetown lead out of the city, past the dramatic Great Falls of the Potomac, through scenic valleys of the Appalachians, and into mountainous parts of western Maryland, with camping and picnic areas along the way. Watered sections invite canoeists, boaters, and anglers.



Georgetown Ranger Station
1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW
Washington, DC 20007

Great Falls Tavern
11710 MacArthur Blvd.
Potomac, MD 20854


C & O Canal Headquarters
P.O. Box 4
Sharpsburg, MD 21782

Antietam Creek Ranger Station
3811 Harpers Ferry Rd.
Sharpsburg, MD 21782

Western Maryland Station
Canal St.
Cumberland, MD 21502

Hancock Visitor Center
326 E. Main St.
Hancock, MD 21750

Williamsport Visitor Center
205 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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