When a rock slide forced the closure of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (C&O Canal Towpath) at mile 155 near the Paw Paw Tunnel in western Maryland, it was bad news for the local and interstate trail users.
But it was also bad news for local businesses. This popular trail corridor, which attracts more than 4,700,000 visitors a year, is inextricably linked to the economies of the local communities. The opening of the towpath and its connection to the Great Allegheny Passage has been an enormous boost to the local economy, with 64.4 percent of businesses reporting revenue increases "at least somewhat as a direct result of the trail."
The towpath's closure at Paw Paw required pedestrians and cyclists to detour over the mountain via the Paw Paw Tunnel Hill Trail. According to the C&O Canal Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 2007 to protect and promote the corridor, this put a damper on many visitors' plans-especially those of thru-bikers-and triggered cancellations along the entire length of the towpath.
"As the owner of two businesses along the canal, it was my concern that cyclists would choose to shorten their trips to just riding the trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and not continuing onto Georgetown due to the slide," said Penny Pittman of Hancock. "Hancock businesses rely
greatly, and some businesses, solely, upon the thousands of bicyclists that support them each season."
At a February meeting of the Canal Towns Partnership, an economic development initiative focused on uniting nine communities in the western part of the park, concerns were voiced about the negative impact towns were seeing from the towpath's closure at Paw Paw. Director of Tourism in Allegany County, Barbara Buehl, reported that businesses in Cumberland were already receiving cancellations due to the towpath's closure.
Understanding the economic consequences of an extended closure of the towpath, the C&O Canal Trust worked swiftly to secure a $5,000 donation from the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA). Facilitated by Linda McKenna Boxx, president of ATA, an advisory board member of the C&O Canal Trust, and a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Rail-Trail Champion, the donation allowed park staff to perform geotechnical assessments, clear the towpath, stabilize the remaining rock, and install a rockfall protection fence for the safety of visitors.
"There was an immediate need to take action," McKenna Boxx says. "A break in the towpath would discourage many travelers from attempting the end-to-end trip."
Underscoring the economic significance of the towpath to the local communities it connects, the Hancock Chamber of Commerce was one of the first to offer its appreciation.