From earliest Colonial times, ambitious entrepreneurs dreamed of connecting America's waterways to ease travel and promote commerce. George Washington was one of the first. He chartered the Patowmack Company in 1784 to construct a series of five canals along the Potomac River to reach into the virgin territory of the Ohio Valley.
The American Canal Age lasted approximately from 1790 until 1855. Many of the great projects were still under construction when the rise of the railroads made them obsolete and unprofitable. Most canals were privately funded and limped along financially until the early 1900s.
Some abandoned canals were filled in; others drained and returned to nature. Old canals were naturals to be converted into parks and are great places to take your dog for a hike. Towpaths are often left in their natural state or covered with gravel - not paved over like most abandoned railroads. The hiking is always easy on wide, flat towpaths once trod by horses and mules and there is usually plenty of swimming for your dog.
When you're out traveling, look for a canal park to enjoy with your dog. Here are a few to consider:
Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Just 15 minutes south of Cleveland is the dog-friendly Cuyahoga Valley National Park along the twisting Cuyahoga River. There are 1000 miles of canals in Ohio and a navigable water link between Lake Erie and the Ohio River was the first priority. In 1832 the Ohio & Erie Canal became a reality.
The main trail to hike with your dog through the park is the nearly 20 miles of the Towpath Trail along the route of the historic canal. Ten trailheads make it easy to hike the crushed limestone path in biscuit-size chunks. The trail is a mix of meadows and forests and the remnants of locks and villages.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park: A canal that could connect the Potomac River to the Ohio River 460 miles away in Pittsburgh would provide a continuous water link from New Orleans to the Cheasapeake Bay. The C&O Canal, dubbed the "Great National Project" by President John Quincy Adams, was finally started on July 4, 1828. It would take 22 years to complete - actually construction just stopped since the canal route never made it out of Maryland with only 184.5 miles dug - and was obsolete before it opened. The ditch survived filling in through the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who championed the canal as "a long stretch of quiet and piece."
The national park service has maintained the towpath for almost 200 miles. There are several excellent places to experience this canine hike - Great Falls Tavern near Rockville, Maryland, Harpers Ferry in West Virginia and the terminus in Cumberland, Maryland are just three. On the Virginia side of the Potomac River you can hike with your dog through the remains of George Washington's Patowmack Canal in Great Falls Park.
Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park: When canal building fever swept America in the early 1800s it didn't take much imagination to dream of a water route between New York and Philadelphia across central New Jersey. Ships could navigate up the Delaware River to Bordentown and to New Brunswick in the east so all that was required was to dig a ditch between the two villages. Construction began in 1830 and by 1834 the canal was open. The main artery - 75 feet wide and seven feet deep and all hand dug - stretched 44 miles and another feeder line ran down the Delaware River to Trenton for 22 miles.
The Delaware and Raritan was one of America's busiest canals and staved off competition from the railroads at a profit until almost 1900. It remained open until 1932 until the last coal barge was grounded. The State of New Jersey took over the property as a water supply system and today the canal remains virtually intact. The state park is a 70-mile linear park connecting fields and forests along its route.
Canine hiking along the old towpath uses natural and crushed gravel surfaces. Several mill buildings, wooden bridges and canal structures are reminders of the bustling times that were once routine here. The canal still brims with activity today - almost any time you can count on sharing the trail with joggers, fishermen, cyclists, horseback riders - and other dogs. The canal towpath can be accessed many places; the canal office is at 145 Mapleton Road in Princeton.
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