With my new ebike, I was eager to get back onto the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) towpath again, and we planned an easy 20-mile ride on a 10-mile stretch of the towpath below Williamsport MD and the Cushwa Basin.
From the parking lot, we headed over to the road so I could cross over the canal, turning left onto Rt 11/W Potomac Street and then left again on N Commerce Street, and the final left onto W Salisbury Street, which carried us over a one-lane, narrow bridge over the canal to attain the towpath. I turned to go west on the towpath, specifically to see one of the highlights of this ride, the restored Conococheague Aqueduct at the Cushwa Basin. Aqueducts are “water bridges,” which carried canal boats over the creeks and rivers that flow into the Potomac River.
The Conococheague Aqueduct, one of eleven built along the canal, was completed in 1835 and operated smoothly (with the exception of about 4 days off in August 1863 for repairs needed due to Confederate sabotage) until 1920 when a canal boat captain had a very bad day. Then disaster struck when a canal boat captained by Frank Meyers clipped the upstream wall, causing it to crumble into the creek some 30 feet below. Canal water and canal boat crashed into the creek below. Some say Meyers was drunk, having probably spent some time in Williamsport fine dining and wining establishments after unloading his cargo of coal at the Cushwa Warehouse. Others say he simply was in a hurry or careless as he guided his boat onto the narrow aqueduct.
Meyers’ daughter or stepson — accounts differ — had the quick-thinking to cut the lines to the mules on the tow path, saving them from being dragged into the creek along with the boat. Meyers himself jumped to safety. What happened to the two mules on the boat (two pulled, while two rested aboard) is unknown. I’d like to think that they survived the terrible fall. The aqueduct was repaired, but in 1924 flooding damaged the aqueduct, along with other parts of the canal, and at that time, the decision was made not to repair the canal.
Restoration work on the aqueduct began in 2017 and was completed in 2019. The project involved strengthening the piers and supports, repairing the masonry, installing a period appropriate wall and iron railing, and making the aqueduct water-tight.
After I walked across the aqueduct, just shy of mile-marker 100, I turned south/east toward Canal Lockhouse 44, a pretty, white-washed frame lockhouse and admired the now working lock. From just above the aqueduct down to just below the lock, the canal is watered. Turtles sunned themselves just below the lock. Between the towpath and the river is the now-closed R Paul Smith Power Station.
There’re a lot of interesting things to see along this 10-mile stretch, as well as some interesting history. After crossing over the power station access road, the canal is mostly dry, except for some mosquito-breeding vernal ponds. For the most part, the towpath is well shaded. You’ll come to the overpass for Interstate 81 first, a noisy major thoroughfare carrying traffic between the Shenandoah Valley and Pennsylvania. But then you’ll notice the picturesque stone remains of a pier and the abutments for the former Cumberland Valley Railroad.
Just past milemarker 96, a tree had fallen across the towpath –a recent fall, from the looks of it — but this made continuing on dicey, as I carefully walked my heavy ebike down the slope toward the old canal to circumnavigate the tree, and then, once on the towpath again, I had to lift it above the big branches. I missed my old, light Trek FX7.3! (On the way back, I encountered a group making their way past this obstacle, and they offered me much appreciated help getting the bike through!)
There’s an interesting bit of history at about the halfway point between milemarker 95 and 94: Falling Water, where in mid-July 1963, Confederate Gen Lee and his army were delayed as they make their way back into the safety of Virginia after the disastrous Battle of Gettysburg.
I enjoyed passing by the Potomac Fish and Game Club, marveling at the large campers and the comfortable glamping sites as well as the river cottages situated along the edge of the river. Here, the towpath becomes part of the club’s access road, but the drivers were all respectful.
Soon I came upon Lockhouse 43 and choose this pretty spot for a quick picnic and to take photos of the lockhouse, near milemarker 93. I completed the remaining 3 miles, enjoying the pretty bluebells alongside the towpath, before turning back to return the way I came, enjoying it all over again.
The 10-mile stretch between milemarkers 90 and 100 is crowded only near the Cushwa Basin. Once you get past the watered section of the canal, you’ll only encounter occasional other cyclists, but mostly deer, turtles and bald eagles. I noticed blue birds, lots of cardinals, and a variety of other songbirds. Riding in late April meant I also got to enjoy a variety of pretty wildflowers, from the small, delicate rue anemone to the last bloodwort of the season to the showy Virginia bluebells that lined the towpath.
Getting there: There is ample parking at Cushwa Basin, as well as just below the Riverview Cemetery at Canal Street.
Website: C&O Canal National Historic Park
For details about other segments of the canal, check out these C&O Canal articles.