One of the reasons why the Chesapeake and Ohio canal has become a historical park is because of all the old locks.
They are scatterd along the canal and mostly restored nicely and has visitor info on display.
The best way to explore the Paw Paw Tunnel is to walk through it. To make your trip even more interesting, the Park Service has established a trail over the top of the tunnel, so you can make a loop out of it. The whole loop is a couple miles long and entails a gain of some 362 feet. You can pick up a brochure that explains the story behind the fifteen little numbered posts that you walk past along the way. Walking over the top on a warm humid day will make you that much more appreciative of the dark cool tunnel on your return.
The Towpath is the wide, gravel path that parallels the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from beginning to end. The towpath was originally used by donkeys and other animals to pull boats on the canal. Today it's a popular place where many residents of Washington DC enjoy strolling or biking. The towpath is level almost the entire way, making it easily accessible for just about anyone. The scenery is also unbeatable, especially if you come in fall, when the trees around the canal and towpath are bright and beautiful.
The Great Falls Tavern and Visitor Center is the main visitor center at the Great Falls section of the C&O Canal. The tavern used to be a stopping point for many coming up or down the canal; today it has exhibits on the history of the canal, and National Park rangers are around to help visitors out. The canal was built in the late 18th-early 19th century to help transport goods up the Potomac. Earlier, George Washington had ordered the construction of the Patowmack Canal on the Virginia side, but this canal, being much longer and making transport much easier, soon surpassed the Patowmack and forced it out of business. You'll also find a model of a canal boat and the canal inside the visitor center.
There are many, many locks along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, built to help boats pass rapids and waterfalls. One of the greatest concentration of locks is at the Great Falls section, where you'll find Locks 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. As you can see, from spring through autumn, the canal is filled with water, and there are small waterfalls at each lock. During winter (the second photo) the canal is drained so you can see entire lock. The locks are surprisingly narrow; I don't know how canal boats used to get through.
ccessed at mile 39.8 (mileage is upriver from Georgetown) on the C&O towpath through the Dickerson Conservation Area - administered by Montgomery County, Maryland - this is an old ford across the Potomac River used by Civil War armies to cross the Potomac. One well-known engraving from the time shows a couple of Federal sharpshooters firing away as Lee's army crosses the river at the beginning of the Antietam campaign. The old canal is actually filled with water in this area so one could put in a boat or a fishing line here. To reach the ford, you cross the towpath and continue to the river bank a short distance beyond.
Located at Mile 162.3 of the C&O Canal, the town Creek aqueduct allowed C&O boats to gracefully cross over the top of Town Creek. The aqueduct is a single arch stone structure which crosses the creek just upstream from its confluence with the Potomac River. There are several other aqueducts which are bigger along the canal, but this one makes for a nice detour off MD 51 - just east of Old Town.
This was the last and most difficult section of the C&O Canal to complete taking over fourteen year - 1836-1850. The tunnel is about ¾ mile long - 3118 feet - and is lined with some 6000000+ bricks. Built as a narrow one-way channel with a towpath on the south side for the mules, boats would occasionally meet inside going in different directions. Downstream boats supposedly had the right-of-way, but ‘right’ was not always obvious in the minds of all canal boat captains. The tunnel and nearby town in West Virginia of the same name were both named after a local fruit-bearing tree known as the Paw Paw tree. You can walk through the tunnel - a flashlight would help you see the interior structure of the tunnel and the seepage pools that can form along the towpath - just watch out for bikers like cachasero as he rolls down the towpath on his way to his next soccer/football game. Mile 155
At Mile 184.5, after 74 locks, 7 dams, 11 aqueducts and the ¾ mile long Paw Paw Tunnel, you reach the end of the C&O Canal in Cumberland. The Visitor Center is located nearby in the old Cumberland train station - from which visitors can also ride on a restored steam engine line. Taking up the first floor of the old station, the center is filled with exhibits - including an exploded life size mock up of an old canal boat - that will go a long way in furthering your understanding of the canal and life along it. This is also the western end of the C&O Bike/Towpath and the eastern beginning of the Great Allegheny Passage%L which will take you another 150 miles northwest up to Pittsburgh.
There are 2 Great Falls Parks. In the C&O Canal National Parkway is the Great Falls Tavern on the Maryland side. On the Virginia side is Great Falls Park, a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Both are National Park Service units.
On the Virginia side, the The Patowmack Canal 1785-1828 is the primary historic resource and the falls are the natural wonder. The canal was an effort to convert the Potomac River into a viable highway to the west. "As early as 1754, George Washington envisioned a system of river and canal navigation along the Potomac River to reach the fertile Ohio Valley. Largely through his efforts, the Potowmack Company was organized in 1785 to carry out this mission."
Ferry Hill gets it's name from the ferry landing at the bottom of the hill, which provided service between the north and south banks of the Potomac River. Streams flow into the Potomac from each side at this location and provide natural ramps from the river level to the bluff above. On the south bluffs, the community of Shepherdstown, West Virginia developed to take advantage of the traffic that flowed across the river at this point. Today, traffic still cross the river here, only on the new bridge (opened 2005).
Located on a great horseshoe of the Potomac River, the canal builders found that they could reduce the canal from 5 miles going around the bend to less than 2 miles by building directly across the narrows. Here locks #47, #48, #49, and #50 lifted the canalboats in quick succession to the height of the river on the other side of the bend.
Past the Fish Ladder, the trail to the Great Falls Overlook reaches Olmsted and Rocky Islands. These islands are unique ecosystems; during the Potomac River's occasional floods, these islands are completel inundated and various sediments are dumped on the island. As a result, the island's habitat differs somewhat from the habitat of its surroundings. Many bridges on these islands span small streams and rocky gorges, many of which are especially photogenic. The entire trail on the island is an elevated boardwalk; it is illegal to leave the boardwalk, so do not try to. Interpretive plaques along the trail inform you of the area's ecosystem.
The most spectacular views of the Great Falls of the Potomac are from the Virginia side, which is only a short drive from both Washington DC and the C&O Canal. The cost of entering this park is $5. Once inside, you can take a short walk to the falls; stop at the visitor center; or hike on some of the park's 15 miles of trails. Otherwise you can walk along Mather Gorge or visit ruins of a canal and a town.
The Fish Ladder is one of the most interesting and beautiful areas in the C&O Canal Great Falls area. To get there, start from the tavern and walk south along the towpath, and you will soon see a side trail for the Great Falls Overlook/Olmsted Island Bridges. Turn right and take that trail, and immediately you will reach the trail across the Fish Ladder. Although the scene seems like a little natural wonder, with a small waterfalls, rapids, rocks, and whitewater, the entire area is artificial. Originally, not many fish were able to navigate the river past the Great Falls, so to assist them Congress appropriated $50,000 for the construction of a fish ladder around the falls. Work took quite a while, with a final cost of $75,000. Today if you visit you can barely see the human adjustments, even though quite a few of the "rapids" are made by wooden structures.
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