(National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)
Birds still sing from the trees, and the Potomac River continues to rumble as it rushes through the Great Falls. Other sounds from the past can be imagined if one stands quietly on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The shovels of immigrant workers scrape as they carve the canal out of the mountains and ridges along the river; hooves clop as the mules pull coal-laden boats down a crowded canal, their bells keeping beat with the footsteps of the small children who guide them; a brass lock horn blares and the shout "Heeeey Lock!" alerts a lock tender to an approaching boat; and voices murmur at nightfall as families tie up their boats after a long 16-hour day.
The rich history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, also known as the C & O Canal, is vividly portrayed at several sites along its 184.5-mile route, a route that today forms a beautiful national park along the Potomac River in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Giant trees shade a sandy towpath between the river and the old canal bed, visited by thousands of hikers, bikers, birders, and naturalists who enjoy the spectacular scenery of the park. If they pause long enough, they can also hear the voices of those who lived and worked along the canal during an important era in American history.