Song springs from Justice Douglas’s C&O trek

The arduous trek led by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in the spring of 1954 not only became a multi-day media event that led to the C&O Canal becoming a scenic park rather than a paved roadway, but it also inspired the hikers to write a song along the way – one that mentions familiar Panhandle names, including Paw Paw, John Brown, James Rumsey and Shepherdstown.

A bit of background: As 1954 dawned, the C&O Canal had been unused as a commercial waterway for three decades. That January, an editorial in the Washington Post endorsed a federal government plan to pave the more than 182 miles of overgrown path from D.C. to Cumberland. 

A nature lover who often hiked along the C&O near his Washington home, Douglas quickly penned a response to the Post. In his letter to the editor, Douglas issued a challenge, suggesting the editorial writer who wanted the path paved over ought to first join him in hiking the entire length of the canal. 

Douglas and more than 50 other hikers set out from Cumberland, Md. on March 20. Along the way, Sigurd Olson, president of the National Parks Association, and others penned “The Canal Song,” with new stanzas added each evening to reflect the latest happenings on the journey, which on Day 2 included a snowstorm.  

It would be eight days before the hikers made it to D.C. – and by then, the group had dwindled to just Douglas and eight others. By the end, the epic jingle had 31 verses. A sampling:

The Canal Song

From Cumberland to Washington

Is one-eight-nine they say;

That doesn’t faze this dauntless band

It’s downhill all the way.

Oh, the mercury was dropping

And the snow was coming down

As we stepped out at break of dawn

And strode toward Paw Paw Town.

We hurled ourselves into the storm,

Our jaws clenched tight with pain;

No food, no rest – just tortures damned,

And now they say it’ll rain.

Oh the old Potomac’s rising,

No nobler band’s come down;

We’ll bleed and die, our cause is just,

We’ll get to Hancock town.

The people swarm around us

With cookies, fruit and cheer,

This is the consarned dangdest thing

That ever they did hear!

Last night we took to sleeping out

Beneath the open skies;

The ground was hard, the dew was wet

But the stars were in our eyes!

The duffers climbed aboard the truck

With many a groan and sigh,

But something faster passed them up

The Judge was whizzing by.

The miles are rolling right alone,

We’re tough as nails by now;

We hold our broken bodies straight

As the Justice takes a bow!

The knees are slowly playing out

The arches start to drop;

If we had John Brown’s body here,

We’d like to make a swap.

Oh, Rumsey built the steamboat

At good old Shepherdstown;

We wish we had the damned thing here,

So we could steam to town.

Oh, the towpaths licks are standing

And the tunnel’s still intact;

We know our friends will fight like hell

To stop the Cadillacs.

Glory to the Immortal Nine,

The waiting thousands roared,

The conquering heroes hit Lock 5,

And hurled themselves on board.

And now our journey’s ended,

Our aches and troubles gone;

“But blisters heal,” so says the Post,

And memories linger on.

After the hike, the Post’s editors did change course and agreed the land along the Potomac deserved preservation.

In 1998, the C&O Canal National Historical Park honored Douglas on the centennial of his birth with the unveiling of Tom Kozar’s portrait of the justice hiking the towpath. The image hangs in the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac, Md.

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