Cars – not cyclists – might have ruled the C&O

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Cyclists drawn to the scenic, shady C&O Canal owe a debt to William O. Douglas.

Born this month in 1898 in Minnesota, Douglas served more than 36 years on the U.S. Supreme Court – longer than any other justice – but also holds the distinction as the nature lover whose 1954 hike “saved the C&O Canal.”

U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas in 1954 led a hike that’s credited with the establishment of the C&O Canal as a park.

Early that year, the federal government’s plan to pave the long-neglected path alongside the Potomac, stretching from Georgetown through the Paw Paw Tunnel to Cumberland, Md., was moving ahead.

The commercial waterway hadn’t been used since the 1920s. Progressive minds envisioned the towpath transformed into a roadway.

When the editorial page of The Washington Post endorsed the idea, Douglas swung into action. He wrote a letter to the editor explaining why the towpath ought to be preserved as a spot to get away from traffic, not as a place for more cars.

In his letter, he also issued the Post’s leadership a challenge: Come along as Douglas hiked the whole C&O – 184.5 miles.

The newspaper’s editorial writer signed on and so did dozens of other reporters, editors and noted conservationists. The group set out in March with more than 50 hikers.

Only Douglas and eight other men would finish the entire length of the C&O but the journey attracted so much positive news coverage along the way that by its end few voices anywhere were calling for the path to become a highway. The Post’s editorial page reversed course, and soon so did Congress.

In 1998, a portrait of Douglas, “The Hike That Saved the Canal” was unveiled as the highlight of the C&O Canal National Historical Park’s commemoration of what would have been the associate justice’s 100th birthday.

Gaithersburg, Md., artist Tom Kozar was commissioned to create the portrait of Douglas, who retired from the bench in 1975 and died at age 81 in 1980. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The painting now is on view in the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac, Md.

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