Journey from Hancock Along the C&O Canal Towpath and W. MD Rail-Trail
Europeans began arriving in the Hancock area as early as the 1730s. When the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) came a century later, followed by a toll road on the National Road, followed by the railroads, Hancock boomed between the early 19th and early 20th centuries..
During the Civil War, troops from both sides frequently crossed the river and the C&O Canal. Soldiers traded volleys across the water and skirmished in and near Hancock. Confederates attacked canal boats and trains, destroyed locks, and once tried to take Hancock during a brief winter battle.
From town, walk or bike along the C&O Canal Towpath to explore important sites associated with the Canal and the war. Hancock is also the midway point for the Western Maryland Rail-Trail, and together the two routes offer the perfect round-trip exploration.
Each of the two options below takes you about 11 miles east or west from Hancock along the Towpath, with return via the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. Allow most of the day to explore in either direction.
East on the C&O, from Hancock to Fort Frederick
Miles represent Towpath mileage.
Mile 124.1 Hancock
Park in the lot between Williams Street and Taney Street. One block west, C&O Bicycles will have everything you need for a bike journey, including rentals and repairs. You can also rent a bed in a bunkhouse here and get a hot shower.
Alternatively, park at the south end of Church Street along the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. From here, look up the hill toward St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. There on Orrick’s Hill, and from Main Street, Union troops defended the town in the Battle of Hancock on January 5–6, 1862. During the brief skirmish, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops advanced on Hancock in an effort to take control of the Potomac River and the Canal. The battle was the first of Jackson’s Romney Campaign.
The day before the shelling began, Jackson sent his cavalry commander Turner Ashby under a truce flag to try to persuade Gen. F.W. Lander to surrender the town. Lander refused. Only an estimated 75 to 100 shots were fired, the cold, wintry weather being a major factor. The Union maintained control of the town but St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church was badly damaged, as was the Presbyterian Church on E. Main Street.
Cross the bridge to reach the towpath and head east (left).
The aqueduct, built between 1835 and 1839, is one of 11 such water-filled bridges along the Canal. Aqueducts carried boats over major creeks that emptied into the Potomac, and some have been rebuilt; Tonoloway, however, isn’t one of them. Stop midway along the aqueduct for a scenic view of the river.
Mile 122.8–6 Bowles House Visitor Center (Locks 51–52)
Just beyond the aqueduct you’ll see the remains of Locks 51 and 52 as well as the Bowles House, now one of the C&O’s historical visitor centers. The foundations of an old lockhouse are also visible near Lock 51.
The stunning Bowles House was originally a one-story home built around 1785 by William Yates. The Yates family lived in the house when the C&O Canal was being built along this stretch in 1839. At least two other families owned the house, and it was occupied until the 1980s. Though the house has seen better days, it remains one of the C&O’s treasures. Two rooms on the ground floor showcase early photographs and the history of both the house and canal. Ask the ranger for a short tour (Memorial Day weekend–October, 9 am–4:30 pm, Fri–Tues.).
Look for wildlife in and around this section of ancient river channel.
Mile 118.9 Millstone
During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed in Millstone to protect the canal.
Mile 116.1 Licking Creek Aqueduct
In 1839, the year the canal arrived in Hancock, this single-arched aqueduct was first filled with water. It took two years to build.
Big Pool, another section of ancient river channel, was a natural depression when the C&O was built. The C&O Canal Company filled it with water and used it for a turning basin, where—as the name implies—canawlers turned their boats around. You can launch a boat on this small lake from a ramp at Fort Frederick. Watch for wildlife in and around the water.
Mile 112.5 Fort Frederick
The 20-sided wall of Fort Frederick, a National Historic Landmark, was built in the 1750s during the French and Indian War to protect Maryland’s western frontier from attack. Inside the fort today are two reconstructed barracks with reproductions of period artifacts and a museum depicting area history. You’ll also find a visitor center, campground, and nature trails. Living history programs are available throughout the summer.
During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed here to protect the Canal and the B&O Railroad from Confederates.
From the Towpath, cross the bridge and the railroad tracks (use caution) to access the fort. Bike racks are available, as well as snacks and drinks. Hours change seasonally; visit Fort Frederick State Park online for more information.
The Cumberland Extension of the Western Maryland Railway arrived in Hancock in December 1904 and was both a passenger and freight line. Today, roughly 23 miles of the abandoned corridor—the Western Maryland Rail-Trail (WMDRT)—are paved for non-motorized recreation. The eastern end of the WMDRT begins just west of Fort Frederick.
You can access the trail from the fort by either heading back along the C&O Canal towpath (signs will guide you to the WMDRT). If you want to take the road, from the entrance of Fort Frederick, turn left on MD 56 (Big Pool Rd.) and go about 1 mile. Follows signs to the parking lot on the left.
At mile 2.7 on the WMDRT you’ll find Park Head Cemetery, with some very old headstones in a tiny burial ground. The route to Hancock follows a wooded corridor, which in places parallels Interstate 70 very closely. If you prefer to continue along the C&O Canal towpath instead, there are a few places were you can take a short trail to the towpath; look for the signs.
East on the C&O, from Hancock to Lock 56
Miles represent towpath mileage.
Mile 124.1 Hancock
Mile 127.2 Devils Eyebrow
This unique geological formation is an exposed rock strata, which was thrust upward millions of years ago to form an anticline. The soft calcium soils below the anticline have eroded, forming a shallow cave.
Mile 127.5 Round Top Cement Works
The ruins of the old cement works are striking against the cliff face. You can see the remains of eight kilns once used to burn lime to ash. Mill foundations are, including a smoke stack, are also visible. During the Civil War, the cement works were Hancock’s largest employer, providing jobs for 100 people. The mill suffered from numerous fires until a final blaze in 1903 shuttered the doors for good. The discovery of Portland cement, stronger and slower setting, helped hasten the plant’s demise.
The area on the cliff above is part of Round Top Wildlife Management Area, home to a collection of rare plants and animals that thrive in this unique geologically significant part of the state.
Mile 129.7 Sir Johns Run
Across the Potomac River here Brig. Gen. John Imboden fought with Union troops protecting the B&O Railroad bridge.
Mile 133.6 Cacapon Junction
Across the river is a stone-arch bridge built for the B&O Railroad. Stonewall Jackson’s troops burned the original during their attack on Hancock in 1862.
Mile 134.2 Dam 6 & Lock 55
You can see remnants of the earthen dam jutting into the river. Wooden cribbing once held the dam together. Confederates attacked both the dam and locks here in attempts to sabotage Union supply lines along the canal. Great Cacapon, WV, across the river, was also fired on by Confederate troops stationed on Cacapon Mountain.
Return Via the WMDRT
From Lock 55, cross over to the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. you can continue west another 2.5 miles to the western terminus of the WMDRT at Pearre (PARE-ree) Station. Nearby is the historical Woodmont Lodge (11761 Woodmont Road). The property once served a private premier rod and gun club but is now operated by Fort Frederick State Park and Maryland’s Wildlife & Heritage Service. The 1930s stone lodge is periodically open to visitors and is worth a look. For more information, contact Fort Frederick State Park at (301) 842-2155.