Path To Discovery

Souzz and I have gotten deeper into cycling lately, and our tastes cross a wide range of trails–from rocky single track to easy pavement. This weekend’s destination, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Bike Trail, trends more towards the latter.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of the Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal? We’d never heard of it ourselves until we ran across a brief mention online. All we really knew ahead of our trip was that it’s about an hour’s drive north of Baltimore and it’s supposed to be an easy ride. We learned more when we got there, of course, in part through some great signage along the route.

The C&D Canal was completed in 1829, and it was quite an engineering marvel for its time. It was dug entirely with picks and shovels for wages of 75 cents a day, and more than 2600 men were involved in a massive project that took five years. Once it opened, mules and horses were used to pull boats along a 36 foot wide waterway, and the canal’s primary lock was maintained through use of a diving bell (which is still on display at trail’s end).

The canal reduced the length of the boat trip between Baltimore and Philadelphia by more than 300 miles, a huge shortcut—and one that that endures to this day, as millions of tons of cargo still pass through the canal every year.

The cargo on our trip was just our lunch and a few bottles of water, so the ride was as easy as we had expected. The total out and back was about 30 miles, and the biking is pretty level. The path weaves in and out of a few patches of woods, but it mostly keeps to the canal. There are benches every so often, a few picnic tables, a mid-way restaurant with a big open air patio, and quaint little towns on each end (Chesapeake City, Maryland, and Delaware City, Delaware).

We tacked on a few more miles (and a slice of easy single track) by connecting back to the main trail through an overgrown section of old towpath near Delaware City. Based on the condition of that part of the “trail,” I don’t think it gets done much (and it’s not really necessary to ride that, as the paved path gets you everywhere you need to go).

There is a lot to see on this ride. The canal is impressive, the path passes under several interesting bridges, and there’s an 1800s-era garrison that is visible from the northern terminus. The garrison, Fort Delaware, is on Pea Pod Island in the middle of the Delaware River; it was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Today it’s a park that is accessible by ferry from Delaware City.

The highlight of our trip was our visit to the African Union Church Cemetery. Located in the middle of a sweeping turn in the path, it was built on the site of the 1830s settlement of Polktown. The cemetery was overgrown and largely forgotten until 1990, when it was accidentally rediscovered by local children playing in the marsh. Since then, it’s been restored and mapped with great care. Those efforts have accelerated in the past few years through the excellent work of the Friends of the African Union Church Cemetery, and there are interpretive signs that explain some of its amazing history.

There has been a lot of recent progress in understanding who is buried here and how the space was originally configured. There are no official records, but the cemetery is the final resting place for (at least) five Civil War soldiers from the Union Army’s US Colored Troops (USCT). We spent a lot of time here, reading the history, thinking about Polktown, and trying to imagine the lives that these people must have led. Visiting the cemetery was the most interesting and meaningful part of our ride; it felt like a privilege.

Five hours after hitting the trail, we were back at our car, still buzzing about all that we saw and did and learned. This was a trip full of pleasant surprises, maybe because we just showed up without doing any homework. If it had been a backcountry destination, we would have scoped it out and might have known what to expect. Perhaps the real lesson is that there’s more to discover when you don’t know as much. If that holds true, Souzz tells me I’m going to be very good at this discovery stuff.

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