An excerpt from the book Towns along the Towpath by Kate Mulligan:


The First Long Walk

On March 21, 1954, William O. Douglas, then a 55-year-old Associate Justice of the Supreme Court led 37 newspaper reporters, conservationists and a few kibitzers on the first leg of a 185-mile walk along the canal towpath from Cumberland, Md. to Georgetown.

The walk originated with a challenge. Merlo Pusey wrote an editorial in the Washington Post supporting a plan to build a scene parkway along the abandoned bed of the canal. He argued that the parkway "would enable more people to enjoy beauties now seen by very few...with the Potomac more accessible, it would be cleaned up and made a great recreational asset."

Pusey’s view seem sensible—ahead of his times, in some respects. But Douglas, an early environmentalist was able to look even further into the future. He wrote to defend "a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns." He dared the Post’s editorial writers to walk with him the full length of the canal to discover what would be missed by someone traveling 60 or even 25 miles an hour in an automobile.

Douglas ended his response with a list of what would be experienced by walking, rather than driving, along the towpath. "He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox...he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him."

A marvelous collection of tales and articles about that legendary journey is available in the Western Maryland Room of the Washington County Library in Hagerstown. You’ll want to step back in time and join Douglas and his companions on the towpath after reading some of the accounts.

"We Accept" wrote the Post’s editors, adding that Douglas had written "in a most charming manner." Pusey argued for a leisurely pace along the towpath. "It is quite obvious that the less distance we cover each day the more enjoyable it will be...My experience is that it takes time to get on speaking terms with the wildlife, to sit and listen to the wind, to hunt the choicest buds of spring."

The writers soon started practicing their trade. Pusey described the jaunt as "a calious caracole, a blister bolero, a plodders’ promenade, a stragglers’ strut, a ramblers’ rigadoon or even a drag-foot fandango." The group improvised stanzas to the 100-year-old Canal Song.

Wonderful vignettes are scattered throughout these accounts. A "proper woman" on horseback approached Douglas and requested that he address the problem of mosquitoes along the canal. "I hope you can do something for us, my boy," she added.

An 81-year-old man told the hikers about his work as a mule driver on the canal. About 100 residents greeted the group when its members reached Shepherdstown and a civics class from Hancock came down to the towpath. Later, Douglas pulled himself up the side of the mountain using grapevines, at a point where the towpath washed away.

Women were conspicuous by their absence. Given the times, perhaps it’s not surprising that none of them were invited to join the walk. But, apparently, they weren’t welcome even in their traditional culinary and support roles. The stories report a buffet dinner with champagne at the Woodmont Rod and Gun Club, hosted by Henry Bridges; bacon and eggs cooked by the men of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club; a buffalo meat and salmon feast offered by "the Izaak Walton boys." One reporter even includes a pancake recipe used by one of the PATC men.

At the mid-point at Williamsport, 10 hikers remained. Nine eventually completed the entire walk to Georgetown. Interior Secretary Douglas McKay met the group at Lock 8, saying "Justice Douglas, I presume." Douglas ended the journey perched on the stern of the Canal Clipper, holding a bunch of forsythia and waving his hat in response to the cheering crowd, as the boat was pulled by mules along the canal.

By the end of the trip, the Post’s editors favored some sort of compromise between the two views concerning the parkway and had learned some valuable trail lessons. They wrote, "Out here, the first signs of spring seem far more important than the antics of self-inflated wild men or what Congress does with the tax bill."


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