Throwback Thursday photo: justice on the C&O Canal

C&O Canal National Historical Park (Washington, DC), 1954.

Credit: National Park Service, flickr.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas walks point on a hike through the Washington, DC portion of what is now the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park.

Douglas, the longest-tenured justice in the history of the Supreme Court, was a controversial judicial figure, but his love of the outdoors was never in doubt. So formative were the judge’s boyhood experiences in the Pacific Northwest that he penned a book about it in 1950—Of Men and Mountains—and later received the ultimate conservation honor when his name was added to a protected wilderness area in his home state of Washington.

But the C&O Canal, which runs 184.5 miles from the nation’s capital to western Maryland, will always enjoy a special connection with Douglas.

In the 1950s, the canal, which had been partly restored as a park in 1938 only to be severely damaged by a flood a few years later, was targeted as the site of a new highway. Anticipating that such a project would destroy wildlife habitat, Douglas led the charge to preserve the area, writing a letter asking the editorial board of the Washington Post (which had previously voiced support for the highway) to hike the trail with him. Douglas was certain that the trip would change their minds.

The Secretary of the Interior hails Douglas near the end of the famous C&O Canal hike. Credit: National Park Service, flickr.

At the end of the hike, Douglas and company (including Dr. Olaus Murie, then the president of The Wilderness Society) were greeted by a supportive crowd. The Post reversed its position, and with public attention now aroused, the highway was no longer a foregone conclusion. Debate over how to handle the area raged for years, until, in 1971, a bill was passed to establish C&O Canal National Historical Park. The park was officially dedicated to Douglas in 1977.

Today, the canal is a popular site for hikers, cyclists and others, drawing millions of visitors each year. It also stands as a remnant of the turbulent age of American industrialization—and a reminder that a walk in the woods can make a big difference.

Today, a statue of Douglas stands near the canal in Washington, DC. Credit: National Park Service, flickr.

Read more about William O. Douglas’ efforts to save the C&O Canal

Wilderness areas named after Douglas and other conservation heroes