New Study Reveals Critical Threats to C&O Canal

Date:   April 28, 2004
Contact:   Andrea Keller, NPCA, phone: 202-454-3332

New Study Reveals Critical Threats to C&O Canal

Washington, D.C. - During the 50th anniversary celebration of a Supreme Court justice’s hike to save the C&O Canal from being covered in asphalt, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) today announced that the canal’s future is again in question—this time by an annual funding shortfall in excess of $13 million, development, and other threats. The nonpartisan organization is encouraging Congress and the administration to fund the preservation of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

“The ‘Great National Project’ is now greatly neglected,” said Joy Oakes, NPCA’s Mid-Atlantic regional director. “This historic riverside forest lacks the funding and staff to preserve for the future what thousands of local residents enjoy today.”

Running 184.5 miles along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, the C&O Canal National Historical Park is what remains of George Washington’s vision to connect East to the western frontier by a series of canals. Of the 4,000 miles of canals built during the 19th century, the C&O is the only towpath canal that remains mostly intact. Today, millions of local residents canoe the Potomac and take their strollers and bicycles out for weekend jaunts along the canal towpath, never suspecting that they are visiting one of the most diverse natural and cultural areas in the eastern U.S.

According to NPCA’s new State of the Parks® report, the canal, once deemed the “Great National Project,” is in serious jeopardy. Some historic lock houses, farmhouses, and other buildings are crumbling. Hazardous waste and invasive plants and animals threaten the park’s ecosystem. Development and utilities are encroaching on park boundaries. Stories about American Indian village sites along the river, Civil War encampments, Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and Tobeytown, a community of formerly enslaved people located along the canal in the 1800s, need more study and are unknown to visitors.

The park’s business plan, a joint project of the National Park Service and NPCA completed in 2001, indicated that the C&O Canal National Historical Park operates with an annual shortfall of more than $13 million—nearly twice the park’s current annual budget. More than 170 new full-time equivalent staff members, including an archaeologist, park interpreters, and a hydrologist, are needed to protect the park’s vast archaeological and natural heritage and meet the needs of visitors. For example, only one person staffs some visitor centers. If that person catches the flu, the visitor center is closed to the public.

“This park is a national treasure—an integral part of our nation’s history,” Oakes said. “But just as the canal was in turmoil 170 years ago and even 50 years ago—it remains so today.”

President John Quincy Adams kicked off construction of the C&O Canal on July 4, 1828, in Little Falls, Maryland. By 1850, the C&O Canal Company had spent a whopping $14 million and fell 180 miles short of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, its original destination. Thirty years and a devastating flood later, the company and the canal were in ruins. The company’s chief competitor, the B&O railroad, purchased the canal, but after another large flood in 1924, handed it over to the U.S. Government, which proposed construction of a highway on top of the canal.

Outdoor enthusiast Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas would have none of that, challenging the editors of The Washington Post and the Evening Star in March 1954 to join him on a hike along the canal to better appreciate its historic and natural qualities. More than 50,000 people cheered the hikers, which included Sigurd Olsen, president of the National Parks Association (now NPCA), when they entered Georgetown two weeks later. Soon thereafter, The Washington Post editorialized in support of the canal. In 1961, part of the canal was designated a National Monument. In 1971, President Nixon signed the C&O Canal National Historical Park into law.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Justice Douglas’ hike, the C&O Canal Association is hosting a walk along the canal, April 18 – May 1, 2004. Information is available at

NPCA launched the landmark State of the Parks program in 2000 to assess the health of national parks across the country. The product of a yearlong analysis, C&O Canal National Historical Park: A Resource Assessment, is the 11th NPCA State of the Parks report.


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