A hike for all time

March 14, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

As Robert Estabrook sees it, a single word - an interpretation, really - may have launched a conservation movement.


On Jan. 3, 1954, The Washington Post editorialized in favor of a parkway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or its towpath "to open up the greatest scenic asset in this area - the Potomac River - to wider public enjoyment."

The paper's wish was an ambling 35-miles-per-hour road like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Estabrook, the Post's editorial page editor at the time, recalled last week. It might lure sightseers and lead to a cleaner Potomac River.

Instead, people interpreted the paper's position as a 55-mile-per-hour traffic mess, Estabrook, 85, said during a phone interview from his home in Lakeville, Conn.


"People jumped on us for profaning the environment," said Estabrook, who approved the editorial that colleague Merlo Pusey wrote.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas may have channeled the opposition of many into a letter to the editor published 16 days later.

"Take time off and come with me," Douglas challenged the editorial writer - which led to a canalside walk of about 175 miles. Douglas was one of nine men to hike the entire way.

"It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capital's back door - a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns ..." Douglas wrote. "It is a sanctuary ... that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway."

"Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour," Douglas wrote.

The Post gladly accepted the justice's challenge.

Spontaneously, dozens of other people from across the country did, too. Experts in ornithology, geology, mammalogy, ecology, geography, cave exploration. A physicist from Washington, D.C., an attorney from Tennessee, an economist from Virginia - all united in their love of the outdoors.

The press jumped in, too. The newly-merged Washington Post and Times-Herald, the Washington Star, Time, Life and CBS Radio sent people to cover it.

A Connecticut editor in favor of a highway when he arrived was against it when he left, according to a chronicle prepared by Jack Durham, who arranged the hike on behalf of The Wilderness Society.

The debate

The Post's editorial may have incited backlash, but the issue already was very real.

"In 1954, the National Park Service's official position was to create the parkway," said Park Ranger Jana Friesen, who is overseeing logistics for next month's 50th anniversary celebration hike.

Specific plans for a parkway dated back many years.

In the 1930s, there was a plan to have a parkway on both sides of the canal to keep high-rises away, Friesen said. "They had done drawings and proposal. It was going to happen."

Although the Park Service said it favored open space in the 1950s, the C&O Canal presented an odd dilemma. As an 80-foot-wide strip running 184.5 miles, it wasn't a substantial buffer against development, Friesen said.

Also, the Park Service couldn't yet acquire land. That would be up to the Bureau of Public Roads and the state of Maryland.

"The bargaining chip was the parkway ..." Friesen said. "It was seen as a way of preserving the canal and, more importantly in their minds, the river."

W. Drew Chick Jr., the chief park naturalist for the Park Service's National Capital Parks division, said as much in a post-Douglas-hike report that advocated keeping the towpath, but building a parkway.

"The narrow strip now in Federal ownership cannot be administered or protected; it cannot now provide effectively for the recreation and inspiration of many people," Chick wrote.

Stepping off

The core group of hikers rode a B&O Railroad coach from Union Station in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., on March 19, 1954.

"The original intention was a leisurely back-packing trip with a group of three or four people," Chick's report said. But with all of the interest, it grew considerably.

Reports vary, but at least 25 and as many as 58 people took off from Lock 72, on the west end of the canal's towpath, on the morning of March 20.

The walkers averaged more than three miles per hour that first day.

Twenty-seven people signed the log at the Cardinal Club near Town Creek aqueduct when they stopped the first night. They bunked on cots - except one person stuck with a sleeping bag on a billiard table, with an American flag as a blanket, Chick's report said.

As they continued their hike, they saw Boy Scouts, fishermen, students and a woman on a horse. A school band met them in Williamsport.

On and on they went on the towpath, noting the condition of elm trees, spotting dozens of bird species, surveying flood damage and parts of a disintegrating freight barge - all the while chatting about the politics of the day and nature's wonders.

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