National Parks Magazine: “A Change Of Scenery”

Exactly seventy years ago this month Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas read an editorial in the Washington Post supporting a proposal by the National Park Service of a scenic highway along the route of the old C&O Canal. Between Cumberland, MD and Washington, DC the road would run parallel to or fully replace the Canal and towpath we all enjoy today. Justice Douglas was an avid outdoorsman who spent most weekends hiking the Canal, so he knew well the wonders, the beauty, and the importance of this magnificent natural area. To lose such a treasure, no more than a stones throw from the nation’s capital, would be a tragedy.

Days later Douglas wrote an editorial of his own, highlighting the immense loss for the region should the project come to fruition. He then organized a hike of the entire 184.5 miles to help raise awareness of the proposed highway. On March 20th of that year a group of 37 like-minded individuals plus two editors at the Post met in Cumberland to begin the hike. A leader in every sense of the word, the Associate Justice set an intense pace that covered 22 miles that first day. The group of participants grew to over 50 people at one point but slowly dwindled each day thereafter; weather and blisters taking their toll. In the end only 9 people–the “Immortal Nine”– completed the trip.

Two years later the National Park Service chose to abandon the project. Still, it took many more years of advocacy and maneuvering in congress before the C&O Canal National Historical Park became a reality in 1971.

Decades later, thanks in no small part to these efforts, writer Melanie Kaplan and I found ourselves able to collaborate on a story for the NPCA magazine, National Parks. Melanie spent five days biking the very same path that Douglas and his coterie of conservationists walked in 1954. Her story, accompanied by the photographs I made at various spots between Georgetown and Cumberland, was published in the Spring issue of 2021.