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C&O Canal Trust Tackles Infrastructure Needs and Engages Diverse Communities in Historical Park

By Amanda Keith posted 05-23-2018 02:49 PM



Walking, running, and biking are three popular activities along the C&O Canal towpath, shown here near Carderock.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal served as a shipping route along the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington D.C., fulfilling a dream of George Washington to utilize America’s waterways to connect resources from the west to markets in the east.

However, with the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, canal boats were soon outrun by train cars. Due to competition with the railroads and destructive flooding, the canal closed to boat traffic in the 1920s.

Then, in 1971, the canal, its historic structures, and its scenic towpath were designated the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Helping to tell of the story of this unique, linear park is the C&O Canal Trust, a philanthropic friends group that raises funds for the park and engages local communities.

Preserving the Park’s Lockhouses through the Canal Quarters Initiative

Established in 2007, the Trust has raised over $350,000 for the park and has responded to its site-specific needs. As a park with over 1,000 structures, one of those needs is rehabilitating and preserving its historic structures, including its lockhouses.

Through the Canal Quarters interpretive program, the Trust restores lockhouses and keeps them from falling into disrepair by allowing the public to experience overnight stays. Since 2009, the Trust has rescued six lockhouses and has hosted over 18,000 overnight guests and 3,500 daytime guests – where they can have unique, interpretive experiences of what life was like for a lockkeeper 60, 90, to 150 years ago. Each lockhouse is furnished from a different time period to tell a story about the development of the C&O Canal.

According to the President of the Trust, Robin Zanotti, allowing guests to stay at a lockhouse is what protects these historic structures:

“It’s an innovative way of helping with the park’s deferred maintenance needs,” she said. “These historic lockhouses fall into disrepair very quickly when they are left neglected. By having guests use the facilities, the lockhouses are in better shape and we are able to respond to repair needs more quickly."

Zanotti also explained that all of the money raised through the program fees directly supports the needs of the lockhouses and that the program inspires a sense of stewardship.

“When we started this program, we saw this as a fantastic interpretive opportunity,” Zanotti said. “Having the visitors stay here has helped them develop an appreciation for these structures, and it’s reduced the amount of vandalism as the houses are noticeably and actively occupied.”


Lockhouse 10 is available for overnight stays and is decorated in a 1930's theme. It interprets the story of the African American Civilian Conservation Corps members who worked to repair flood damage on the canal.

Engaging Communities through the Canal For All Program

The C&O Canal National Historical Park contains over 20,000 acres of historical, natural and recreational resources and includes 184.5 miles of towpath.

While the park is a popular destination for hikers, bikers and paddlers, the Trust wants to make the park more accessible to those locally who do not know about the park’s resources.

“Many people hike or bike on the towpath and don’t actually realize they are in the park,” Zanotti said. “There are also many people that live in neighboring counties but don’t know what opportunities exist here.”

Through the Canal For All initiative, the Trust is strategically reaching out to African American and Latino communities in Montgomery County to participate in recreational, educational, and service-oriented programs at the park.

By building relationships with community leaders in Montgomery County, the Trust is bringing Latinos and African Americans of all ages to the park and including them as part of their programs. Community groups throughout Montgomery County are now participating in park beautification, historic preservation activities and natural resource management, as well as guided bike rides, nature hikes, and overnight stays at the lockhouses.

The Trust hopes that by being more inclusive they are helping to raise awareness and potentially build a sense of stewardship for those who live in the neighboring communities.

Becky Curtis, Director of Programs and Partnerships for the Trust, explained why they initiated this program:

“We started Canal For All because we want people from all backgrounds to feel welcome here. We want to inspire more and more people to see this park as their own. We need their help taking care of it.”


Two students from Identity, Inc., a Montgomery County nonprofit focused on Latino youth, participate in Great Falls Canal Pride Days, where they helped to sand and paint railings around the Great Falls Overlook.

Connecting Park Visitors through an Award-Winning Mobile App

In the spring of 2017, the Trust also implemented an innovative way to help visitors find their park through releasing the C&O Canal Explorer app. This mobile app has over 600 points of interest and allows visitors to find hiking trails, campgrounds, trail-heads and parking, and includes bits of history for app users to learn as they scroll.

Heidi Schlag, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Trust, explained that the mobile app is a fun engagement tool and an important information guide for visitors:

“This park is fairly understaffed and oftentimes visitors won’t have a chance to meet with a park ranger or attend an interpretive talk on their trip. This app provides a service by helping visitors find their way around the park, independently locate points of interest, and learn about the park’s history.”

This year, the app also received recognition as Innovative Product of the Year by the Public Lands Alliance Partnership Awards Program for its ability to provide information in an accessible way and for the Trust’s collaborative planning efforts with multiple partners to build an app that is beneficial for the visitor.

Supporting the Park Through Partnerships

Zanotti explained that all of the Trust’s efforts are done with the help of partners.

“We often serve as the convener of multiple organizations who have an interest in the park’s preservation, organizing efforts to apply for grants, advocate for government support, and provide access to community groups, among other goals.”

As the park’s partner, the Trust sees itself as an extension of the park’s mission:

“Our job is to amplify the message of the park,” Zanotti said. “We know that we’re able to accomplish so much because of the support park leadership has shown us, and we value the strong relationships we’ve built with them.”

To learn more about the Trust’s programs and to support their efforts, visit