Justice William O. Douglas Hiked 150 Miles to Preserve the C&O Canal as a ParkHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, National Parks, William O. Douglas
A provision in the bipartisan congressional infrastructure bill earmarks $1 billion for “reconnecting neighborhoods” torn apart by interstate highways. If passed, it will be the federal government’s first effort to address inequities in urban infrastructure dating to the mid-20th century. In that era, freeways were often built through Black and brown enclaves, creating literal barriers to economic opportunity. The bill aims to fund the demolition of obstructive highways and mend communities.
The effort would expand on existing efforts undertaken by some cities — among them Rochester, N.Y., New Orleans, Baltimore, Duluth, Minn., and Tulsa — to convert highways to neighborhood spaces and correct the mistakes of the past.
But, in the 1950s, one of those mistakes was narrowly averted, not because of any help from Congress but despite the legislature.
If lawmakers had had their way, Washington’s popular Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park — which attains its 50th anniversary as a national park this year — would have become a 60 mph highway. Then a Supreme Court justice stepped into the fray, embarking on a nearly 200-mile “protest hike” along the canal’s towpath that ultimately helped to persuade President Dwight D. Eisenhower to preserve the canal.
Before the hike, a highway seemed a logical use for the path of the old, neglected C&O Canal.
The waterway had seemed cursed from the start. President John Quincy Adams lifted the first shovelful of dirt in 1828 for what investors envisioned as a liquid highway transporting goods between Washington and the Ohio River. But numerous setbacks delayed completion at Cumberland, Md., until 1850. By then, railroads had rendered the canal obsolete. The government bought the property in 1938, and most of it quietly went to seed.
As highway building boomed across the country, Maryland lawmakers proposed converting the canal site into a parkway by filling in some sections of the waterway and building alongside it elsewhere. Proponents said it would boost the state’s economy and allow people to drive to an adjacent recreation area for picnics. A Washington Post editorial argued that it would “enable more people to enjoy beauties now seen by very few,” similar to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas disagreed. Douglas had grown up in Yakima, Wash., and often explored the untrammeled Cascades, climbing the peaks and fly-fishing for trout. “I learned early that the richness of life is found in adventure,” he wrote in his 1950 memoir, “Of Men and Mountains,” and he managed to find a bit of wilderness along the C&O Canal while serving on the court.
Douglas responded to The Post’s editorial with a letter to the editor. The disused canal was “a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door … a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns,” he wrote.
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