This is my personal case for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. An annual case for funding the resurfacing is already being made by the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust. As I discuss later in this article, that funding is not sufficient to complete the resurfacing in a timely way. Yet, there are known safety concerns for the towpath.
The route is very popular among bicycle tourists. Arguably, the route is the longest off-road route in the country. Bicycle tourists often combine the 184 mile C&O towpath with the 150 mile Great Allegheny Passage. That is a total of 334 miles from Washington DC to Pittsburgh.
One reason that the route is desirable is that cyclists do not contend with motor vehicles. In particular, the C&O towpath is entirely within the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The park is well known for its historic sites and for the picturesque Potomac River that parallels the canal towpath.
The accident during my sixth tour on that route from DC to Pittsburgh is my motivation to advocate for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. The tour is an achievement that has always been personally satisfying to me. As I get older, tours such as this become more meaningful and this year I was doing it at seventy five years old.
My Accident on the Towpath
This year, I was in a group of 48 riders on a fully supported Adventure Cycling Association tour. The Adventure Cycling Association was transporting our luggage for this tour. However, I have also done the trip alone twice, carrying all of my stuff on my bicycle.
Early on the fourth day of the tour, I was four miles into the C&O towpath trail when I hit a tree root. This was on the trail between Little Orleans and Cumberland at about milepost 144. The section of trail is well known for hazardous tree roots, rocks, and potholes.
The bicycle and I were flipped to the ground. The accident happened so fast that I have no memory of anything except my head and my helmet hitting the ground. After laying there for a moment and taking inventory, I tried to get up and felt intense pain in my right leg. I was not going to get up. I had a broken femur.
Emergency Medical Technicians arrived about twenty minutes after a fellow rider called 911. They hauled me out of the woods on an All Terrain Vehicle to a waiting ambulance. I was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Maryland in Cumberland, Maryland, on September 15, 2021. Partial hip replacement surgery repaired the damage on September 16. The hospital inpatient rehabilitation unit admitted me for physical and occupation therapy on September 18. I was discharged to return home and begin a long road to recovery on September 25.
C&O Towpath Accident Rate
Hundreds of accidents have been reported on the C&O towpath in recent years. The C&O towpath safety issues were presented in the article “A Path to Success: A Towpath Master Plan” by Stephanie Spencer in the June 2018 issue of Along the Towpath. This is a publication of the C&O Canal Association, a volunteer organization that works with the National Park Service. The article describes the safety assessment of the C&O towpath done in 2015 by the Allegheny Trail Alliance in cooperation with the C&O Canal National Historical Park. Current resurfacing plans are based on that assessment.
The number of injuries sustained by cyclists on the C&O towpath each year is significant according to the Spencer article. “In the past six years [based on June 2018], over 200 towpath injuries were reported, 71 percent of which involved towpath defects such as root exposure.” By my calculation, that amounts to about 24 accidents per year caused by tree roots, rocks, and potholes. That translates to one accident every week during a six month peak riding season.
That accident rate is based on reported accidents. I take that to mean that since they are reported they are also the most severe. In my case, a National Park Service person came to me as I lay in the ambulance to collect my information. Emergency services report all of the most severe accidents to the National Park Service. Anecdotally, hospital staff told me of many patients admitted due to C&O towpath accidents.
Long Term Funding for Resurfacing is Needed
More aggressive funding of C&O towpath resurfacing can eliminate the exposed tree roots, rocks, and potholes that cause accidents more quickly. Funding for towpath resurfacing currently comes from three sources: the National Park Service, the State of Maryland Transportation Alternatives Program, and the C&O Canal Trust. Those sources have supported less than twenty miles of resurfacing per year during the past three years. Each of those segments was funded by separate grants with no commitment for continued support. Spencer also points out the shortcomings of this cyclical funding. Each new year and each new resurfacing phase requires that the C&O Canal National Historical Park request new funding.
If the accident rate was that high on a public highway or city street, there would certainly be a call for funding and corrective action. Instead, this is an off road trail with a small constituency and an appeal for added funding is difficult to support. Funding for the National Park Service or for the C&O Canal National Historical Park is not necessarily a priority for our Government. Still, I add my lone voice as a cyclist to those of the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust to appeal for more funding. I do that as one concerned cyclist of thousands who have toured the C&O and one unlucky enough to be seriously injured.
My Lone Voice as a Cyclist
Some day I may return to confront the trail that put me into the hospital and resulted in months of physical therapy. I would like to know that something has been done to fix this trail, one of the most popular in the country, to make it safe for everybody who uses it. What will it take to get needed C&O towpath resurfacing done? It will take more than my lone voice. In the meantime, when you ride the C&O towpath, be careful to avoid being one of the accident statistics.