A tale of two canals

A very different story of canals on each side of 'the pond'.

I began work at the Canal & River Trust on 28 May, so I'm a little red faced to report that I've just returned from a two week holiday (in my defence it was planned months before I was offered the job). It's probably fair to say that my idea of a holiday is not going to be most people's first choice. No sitting on a beach for me or relaxing with a good book, I prefer something a bit more energetic and challenging. I've spent the past fortnight cycling from Chicago to Washington DC, approximately 950 miles.

In an unexpected coincidence, it turned out that I was closer to canals on my holiday than I thought I would be. My route from Pittsburgh (the halfway point) to Washington followed the route of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. The canal was seen by the George Washington as being crucial to boost trade with the western states (at that time the west meant Ohio and the Great Lakes). George Washington never saw the canal realised, he died in 1799 more than 30 years before the first section of the canal opened in 1831.

The C&O operated for less than a century before first becoming victim to competition from rail (much like the UK canals), then road (parts of the abandoned canal route were used to build highways on). Major floods also put pay to the C&O, directly damaging the canal and, as was the case with the great 1913 flood of Dayton, Ohio, destroyed as part of relief efforts. Many of the C&O locks were blown up to allow flood water to drain more quickly from the stricken city. They were never fully repaired.

Although the C&O canal towpath is now designated as a US National Park and has been developed as a popular walking and cycle touring route, few navigable sections of waterway remain. The loss of the C&O waterway reminded me how fortunate we are in the UK, that despite a long and slow decline through the twentieth Century, we still have over 2,000 miles of navigable waterways remaining, including those like the Kennet & Avon canal saved from dereliction and restored to their current glory. 

As the story of the C&O shows, the picture could easily have been very different. Of course with such a superb (and old) resource there are understandably going to be pressure on infrastructure and from competing uses. I'm pleased to have joined the Canal & River Trust and am looking forward to the challenge of working with all those who value the canals to find ways that enable as many people as possible to share and enjoy them - helping the Trust make sure that the story of our canals story has a much happier ending than the C&O.

Last date edited: 11 July 2013

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