Mason-Dixon Line Road Trip, Part 4 • March 19, 2017 • C&O Canal National Historic Park, Fort Frederick State Park, and Berkeley Springs, WV • Written by Jess & Curtis
After a very full day of history and hiking the day before, we woke up to a colder and overcast day, and decided to take it easy. Our original plan was to spend the day in the Appalachians or in Shenandoah National Park, but it just wasn’t great hiking weather, and the national park was a bit more of a drive South. We also realized how much more hiking and historical attractions there are in this area, and were beginning to think we needed a lot more than 3 days here. Did we really have to return to reality the next day??
Unlike the previous days, our exploring today had more to do with trans-Appalachian travel than the Civil War, although it’s hard to escape the Civil War while in Maryland. We started off our day with visiting the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park in the town where we were staying — Williamsport, MD. After the Revolutionary War, many politicians and business men alike believed the future of transportation was by boat. And during the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries there was a big upswing in canal building such as the Santee Canal in SC and, more famously, the Erie Canal in New York. Not to be outdone by their Northern neighbors, traders along the Chesapeake Bay proposed construction of a canal connecting Washington DC to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, PA. This plan would be completed in two stretches, the first would follow the Potomac River to Cumberland, MD and the second from Cumberland across the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio. Ground breaking occurred in 1825 to much auspices. Unfortunately for the canal, the locomotive was on the rise and two business men, having studied commercial trains in England, conceived of the plan to connect the port of Baltimore to the Ohio (the B&O Railroad) in 1827 following almost the exact same route up the Potomac. This invariably caused land disputes and fierce competition. Due to the canal’s head start, it appeared for a time that it would be the winner of this race, but at Harpers Ferry, the B&O decided to cross the river and build on the south side of the Potomac. Land disputes effectively removed, the railroad shot off reaching Cumberland a full 8 years before the Canal. The company (eventually purchased by the B&O RR) never made it to the Ohio, but continued to operate until the 1930’s when flooding destroyed much of the infrastructure. At that time, the land was transferred to the Federal Government in exchange for a loan and eventually being transformed into a National Park site allowing biking and hiking from DC to Cumberland (and even further on a separate trail).
While exploring the site, Curtis visited the visitor’s center and I wandered around outside with Charlotte. We then went to check out a little of the bike trail and found several letterboxes. Our favorite parts along the way were the aqueduct and the old railroad bridge. While we were checking out the railroad bridge, we noticed some cannons on the other side up on a hill, so we walked over to explore and read the plaques about what happened here. It turned out to be the site of a Union Battery during the opening moves of the Civil War.
After we were finished here, we began a little driving tour to the West, through more of Maryland’s gorgeous countryside. Our next stop was at Fort Frederick State Park, where we did a short walk to reach the fort and took turns touring it because dogs weren’t allowed on the inside. There wasn’t a ton to see, but the fort was enjoyable to walk through nonetheless. What is more impressive is the level to which it is preserved given its age. Constructed in 1756-58, the Fort was the result of the French and Indian War. After Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity, the French incited their Indian allies to attack the American frontier. In 1755, General Braddock launched an expedition against Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) from Cumberland, cutting a road for supplies the entire length of the journey. However, after meeting defeat (and Braddock’s death), this same road offered an express for French and Indian forces across the Alleghenies into the heart of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Alarmed, the Governor of Maryland convinced the Maryland Assembly to appropriate funds for the building of a Fort for the protection of Western and Central Maryland. Fort Frederick was completed in 1758, just in time for the fall of Fort Duquesne and the effective collapse of French forces in the Ohio country.
Over the next half century, the Fort saw on again off again use; first during Pontiacs War, and again during the American Revolution where it was used as a prison camp for British POW. Following the Revolution, the fort was sold and given over to farming. It was briefly occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. During the 1930’s, the CCC restored the walls and rebuilt many of the buildings that were associated with the fort. When we visited, there wasn’t much going on, but during the Summer months it would appear that the Fort can be quite popular with reenactments, living history demonstrations, and the like.
Our final stop for the day was in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, right across the border from Hancock, MD. Curtis just had a few letterbox clues for the area, so we got out and walked around the small downtown area. The city center had a small park with natural springs that reminded us of Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs, except their claim to fame is that George Washington actually bathed in one of their natural springs. We wandered up the hill behind the park to admire a castle-looking structure and grab a letterbox before continuing on our way.
To wrap up our day, we decided we really needed some ice cream despite the weather being cold and dreary. After a brief stop at Baskin Robins, we decided we wanted more bang for our buck so we just bought a carton of ice cream from Walmart…and of course, since we were in a hotel with no freezer, we ended up just eating it all that evening. Life on vacation is rough. 😉
The next day, Monday, March 20, we left in the morning for our 7 hour drive home. Of course it ended up being a little longer than that because we enjoy going off the beaten path too much, but we still made it home before dark. We were delighted that there was less snow than we had the previous week, and temperatures were on the rise. Not for good, of course, but all we can do right now is enjoy what warm days we get, and pray that some of those warmer days fall on our “weekends.” 🙂