Over the years Bill and I have traveled to many of the national parks and often spent a week photographing and exploring the parks. These were wonderful experiences but at the same time a bit sad because we always realized that one week was never enough time to really experience what the park had to offer. I often felt a bit envious of photographers who lived next to the parks and were able to visit them several times a year.
Shortly after we got our fantastic four legged companion Cody in March 2009, we were walking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (C&O) with Cody near our home in Washington, DC, and suddenly realized we had a national park close to home that we could explore as often as we wanted. That’s when we decided the three of us would walk and photograph the entire 185 miles of the canal. As of December 2013, we have walked over 400 miles photographing and discovering the magic of the C&O.
The photographs in this book are a result of the rapport we have developed with the canal. During our long, often slow, walks we have discovered beauties of nature that had always been there but we were in too much of a hurry to see them. There are certainly great sights and spectacles along the canal worthy of any national park. Perhaps more intriguing to us though are the more subtle combinations of textures, light and shadows, patterns, and reflections we have found here. The photographs include realism and abstraction, the natural world and the man made world.
The C&O has become a magical place, to our eyes, where nature meets the quietly magnificent ruins of America’s first great industrialization project. The canal towpath winds through the woods alongside the old canal and reveals fascinations both great and small at every turn.
The beautiful masonry patterns in the stone walls of the empty locks still stand as a mosaic testament to the ancient skills of the Irish and German workers who heaved these blocks into precise place nearly two hundred years ago. Nature has lovingly ornamented these stonewalls with delicate Zen gardens of ferns and wildflowers sprouting in the small joints between the gray stones. Tidy white lockkeepers’ houses (still maintained on their exteriors by the Park Service) with their closed green shutters quietly greet you as if the lockmaster and his family just stepped away for a moment, even though the lock houses have been empty since the 1920s.
The old canal itself, for most of its length, is slowly filling with trees, shrubs, and countless layers of decayed leaves and undergrowth. But you can still find water in the canal at many places; the water’s dark surface provides a shimmering mirror for dancing reflections of trees, leaves, stonewalls and sky. There are passing moments when a reflected scene in the canal appears to be a still wet canvas just created by Monet. Along the canal you can see majestic Sycamore trees eight feet wide reach for the sky in competition with colossal stone towers that once held up sky-high railroad bridges over the canal and river. The railroads that built these trestles are now long gone.
The canal is framed on one side by the banks of a great and changing river. Spectacles provided by the Potomac River include: a 70 foot thundering plunge at Great Falls; many sets of rapids racing along at the base of sheer stone cliff walls; and, the Potomac merging with the Shenandoah River in glorious splendor at Harpers Ferry. But the Potomac also offers miles of placid and peaceful riverscapes draped with shady trees and wildflowers. You feel like you might have stepped into the pages of the Wind in the Willows as you wander along the towpath on a quiet afternoon between the river and canal.
The other side of the canal – called the “berm side” — moves from rolling hills, to sheer cliffs, to quiet marshes, and even to busy railroad tracks. Towering cliff walls bear random patterns made from the imprints of long drills and chisels employed to carve out the canal. Ferns, flowers, and trees grow from crevices on the walls and water drains out from the stones down the face of the rocks — scenes that might have been taken from ancient Chinese scroll paintings. Rivers and streams flow down to the canal and pass under it to the Potomac through beautifully constructed stone culverts and massive aqueducts.
For a few miles near Brunswick, Maryland, you can walk along the historic towpath and see modern diesel locomotives on the opposite side of the canal pulling their caravans of coal, chemicals, and new automobiles. Graffiti spangled freight cars are dazzlingly reflected in the dark water of the old canal.
The berm side also harbors fascinating ghosts of the many industrial structures that grew up alongside the canal and then faded away as the canal business died. You may walk out of the woods upon ruins of quarries, foundries, mills, large stone cement kilns, and dry docks for repairing canal boats. There are also tiny ghost towns with decrepit mule barns, schoolhouses, saloons and stores that served the canal commerce. You can hike on abandoned railroad beds and through dark train tunnels left behind by bankrupted railroads that once ran alongside the canal. Nature is slowly reclaiming all of these relics of antiquated industry in a beautiful tapestry of woods and ruins.