About Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, bikeways, class issues and segregation

The 184.5 mile long Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Historic Park is located along the north bank of the Potomac River, between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Maryland.

I recently had the occasion to see the park described in writing as a “class I bikeway”.

So, what is that? A high-class bikeway? Read on.

The California Department of Transportation used this nondescriptive and somewhat judgmental term in its 1970s manual. The “I” in “Class I”, is pronounced as a Roman numeral rather than letter “I”, as becomes clearer when “Class I” is seen alongside “Class II” — bike lane — and “Class III” — designated route on shared roadway, which, thank goodness, is not pronounced “Class aye aye aye” :-). When the California manual became the basis for the first AASHTO bicycle facilities guide in 1980-1981, the term “Class I” was replaced by “bicycle path” — and later, “multi-use path”, corresponding to the actual traffic mix observed.

A few years ago, I rode part of the C&O (only had part of one day to do it) near the Antietam battlefield and found it to be an unimproved, muddy canal towpath, — though certainly scenic and historic. As of a couple of years ago, the stretch nearest Washington, DC has a crushed stone surface, but the rest still has a dirt surface. Hike/biker campgrounds and porta-potties are available every few miles, though.

That this corridor was preserved as a linear park and not converted into a limited-access highway is due in large part to the efforts of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (judicial activism, but while walking, rather than sitting on the bench..!?), see this report.

Keep reading after the part about the towpath, and you will see that the report also describes a very historic event, the issuance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.

The ruling was unanimous. The Justices read the Constitution as opposing segregation, but we’re not talking about segregated bicycle facilities here. Little controversy over them had arisen yet in 1954.

2 Responses to About Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, bikeways, class issues and segregation

  1. I first rode the canal in 1978 and it is not anything close to a class I bikeway. It is a dirt path that can get muddy with the smallest storms. But it is one of best places to take a multi-day tour. Every five to eight miles are campsites called hiker/bikers, each has a portajohn, picnic table, and water pump. The DC end is not paved and I hope it never will be. The C&O canal is why I have my retirement home in Cumberland, MD.

    • I stand corrected — someone else has written to point out that the Capital Crescent Trail runs parallel to the C&O canal towpath rather than on it. so there is a paved trail for the last few miles into Washington, DC, only it is not the towpath.

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