A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a river, canal, or other inland waterway. The purpose of a towpath is to allow a land vehicle, beasts of burden, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge. This mode of transport was common where sailing was impractical due to tunnels and bridges, unfavourable winds, or the narrowness of the channel.

After the Industrial Revolution, towing became obsolete when engines were fitted on boats and when railway transportation superseded the slow towing method. Since then, many of these towpaths have been converted to multi-use trails. They are still named towpaths — although they are now only occasionally used for the purpose of towing boats.

A towpath in use on the Finow Canal in Germany.
Trekkers van vrachtschip Towing a ship
People towing a vessel in the Netherlands in 1931
C&O Canal - 4226570680 cropped
Mules pulling boat on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
A roving bridge on the English Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. The towpath changes to the other side of the canal but the horse does not have to be unhitched
Chemin de halage bouziès
A towpath cut into the rock beside the Lot river in south-west France


Early inland waterway transport used the rivers, and while barges could use sails to assist their passage when winds were favourable or the river was wide enough to allow tacking, in many cases this was not possible, and gangs of men were used to bow-haul the boats. As river banks were often privately owned, such teams worked their way along the river banks as best they could, but this was far from satisfactory. On British rivers such as the River Severn, the situation was improved by the creation of towing path companies in the late 1700s. The companies built towing paths along the banks of the river, and four such companies improved a section of 24 miles (39 km) in this way between Bewdley and Coalbrookdale. They were not universally popular, however, as tolls were charged for their use, to recoup the capital cost, and this was resented on rivers where barge traffic had previously been free.[1]

With the advent of artificial canals, most of them were constructed with towpaths suitable for horses.[2] Many rivers were improved by artificial cuts, and this often gave an opportunity to construct a towing path at the same time. Even so, the River Don Navigation was improved from Tinsley to Rotherham in 1751, but the horse towing path was not completed on this section until 1822.[3] On the River Avon between Stratford-upon-Avon and Tewkesbury, a towpath was never provided, and bow-hauling continued until the 1860s, when steam tugs were introduced.[4]

While towing paths were most convenient when they stayed on one side of a canal, there were occasions where it had to change sides, often because of opposition from landowners. Thus the towpath on the Chesterfield Canal changes to the south bank while it passes through the Osberton Estate, as the Foljambes, who lived in Osberton Hall, did not want boatmen passing too close to their residence.[5] On canals, one solution to the problem of getting the horse to the other side was the roving bridge or turnover bridge, where the horse ascended the ramp on one side, crossed the bridge, descended a circular ramp on the other side of the river but the same side of the bridge, and then passed through the bridge hole to continue on its way. This had the benefit that the rope did not have to be detached while the transfer took place.[6] Where the towpath reached a lock, which was spanned by a footbridge at its tail, the southern section of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal used split bridges so that the horse line did not have to be detached. The rope passed through a small gap at the centre of the bridge between its two halves.[7]

Rope burns on stop gate bridge abutment above Lock 16 on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
Example of Rope abrasion, on a bridge (which also functions as a stop gate) on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

One problem with the horse towing path where it passed under a bridge was abrasion of the rope on the bridge arch. This resulted in deep grooves being cut in the fabric of the bridge, and in many cases, the structure was protected by cast iron plates, attached to the faces of the arch. These too soon developed deep grooves, but could be more easily replaced than the stonework of the bridge.[7] While bridges could be constructed over relatively narrow canals, they were more costly on wide navigable rivers, and in many cases horse ferries were provided, to enable the horse to reach the next stretch of towpath. In more recent times, this has provided difficulties for walkers, where an attractive river-side walk cannot be followed because the towpath changes sides and the ferry is no more.[1]

Not all haulage was by horses, and an experiment was carried out on the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal in 1888. Following suggestions by Francis W. Webb, the Mechanical Engineer for the London and North Western Railway at Crewe Works, rails were laid along a 1-mile (1.6 km) stretch of the towpath near Worleston, and a small steam locomotive borrowed from Crewe Works was used to tow boats. The locomotive ran on 18 in (457 mm) gauge tracks, and was similar to Pet, which is preserved in the National Railway Museum at York. It pulled trains of two and four boats at 7 mph (11 km/h), and experiments were also tried with eight boats. The canal's engineer, G. R. Webb, produced a report on the expected costs of laying rails along the towpaths, but nothing more was heard of the project,[8] and the advent of steam and diesel powered boats offered a much simpler solution. The 'mules' which assist ships through the locks of the Panama Canal are a modern example of the concept.

Modern Usage

Towpaths are popular with cyclists and walkers, and some are suitable for equestrians. In snowy winters they are popular in the USA with cross-country skiers and snowmobile users.

Although historically not designed or used as towpaths, acequia ditch banks also are popular recreational trails.


In Britain, most canals were built, owned and operated by private companies, and the towpaths were deemed to be private, for the benefit of legitimate users of the canal. The nationalisation of the canal system in 1948 did not result in the towpaths becoming public rights of way. Subsequent legislation, such as the Transport Act 1968, which defined the government's obligations to the maintenance of the inland waterways for which it was now responsible, did not include any commitment to maintain towpaths for use by anyone,[9] however, some ten years later British Waterways started to relax the rule that a permit was required to give access to a towpath, and began to encourage leisure usage by walkers, anglers and in some areas, cyclists.[10] The steady development of the leisure use of the canals and the decline of commercial traffic has resulted in a general acceptance that towpaths are open to everyone, and not just boat users.[11]

The concept of free access to towpaths is now enshrined in the legislation which transferred responsibility for the English and Welsh canals from British Waterways to the Canal & River Trust in 2012.[12] Cycling permits are no longer required by the Canal & River Trust.[13] However, not all canal towpaths are suitable for use by cyclists, and conflicts can arise between the differing user groups. Parts of some towpaths have been incorporated into the National Cycle Network, and in most cases this has resulted in the surface being improved.[11]

List of towpaths

See also


  1. ^ a b McKnight 1981, p. 22
  2. ^ McKnight 1981, pp. 129–130
  3. ^ Hadfield 1972, pp. 73, 211
  4. ^ McKnight 1981, p. 130
  5. ^ Roffey 1989, p. 108
  6. ^ McKnight 1981, p. 60
  7. ^ a b McKnight 1981, p. 59
  8. ^ Hadfield 1985, pp. 241–242
  9. ^ Screen, Andy. "Leisure Facilities on the Towpath". Inland Waterways Association. Retrieved 2012-02-03.
  10. ^ Cumberlidge 2009, p. 37
  11. ^ a b Cumberlidge 2009, p. 11
  12. ^ "Government confirms commitment to create new charity to protect Britain's waterways". DEFRA. Retrieved 2012-02-03.
  13. ^ "Cycling FAQs". Canal & River Trust. Retrieved 21 August 2017.


  • Cumberlidge, Jane (2009). Inland Waterways of Great Britain (8th Ed.). Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3.
  • Hadfield, Charles (1972). The Canals of Yorkshire and North East England (Vol 1). David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5719-0.
  • McKnight, Hugh (1981). Shell Book of Inland Waterways. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-8239-4.
  • Roffey, James (1989). The Chesterfield Canal. Barracuda Books. ISBN 0-86023-461-4.

External links

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal and occasionally called the "Grand Old Ditch," operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal's principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains.

Construction on the 184.5-mile (296.9 km) canal began in 1828 and ended in 1850 with the completion of a 50-mile stretch to Cumberland. Rising and falling over an elevation change of 605 feet (184 meters), it required the construction of 74 canal locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, more than 240 culverts to cross smaller streams, and the 3,118 ft (950 m) Paw Paw Tunnel. A planned section to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh was never built.

The canal way is now maintained as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, with a trail that follows the old towpath.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is located in the District of Columbia and the states of Maryland and West Virginia. The park was established in 1961 as a National Monument by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to preserve the neglected remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and many of its original structures. The canal and towpath trail extends along the Potomac River from Georgetown, Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of 184.5 miles (296.9 km). In 2013, the path was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an American national park that preserves and reclaims the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland in Northeast Ohio. Cuyahoga Valley is unusual among American national parks being adjacent to two large urban areas and including a dense road network, small towns, and private attractions.

The 32,572-acre (50.9 sq mi; 131.8 km2) park is administered by the National Park Service, but within its boundaries are areas independently managed as city parks or private businesses. Cuyahoga Valley was originally designated as a National Recreation Area in 1974, then redesignated as a national park 26 years later in 2000, and remains the only national park that originated as a national recreation area.

Cuyahoga Valley is the only national park in the state of Ohio, one of eight Midwestern national parks, and one of three in the Great Lakes Basin, with Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior and Indiana Dunes National Park bordering Lake Michigan.


D (named dee ) is the fourth letter of the modern English alphabet and the ISO basic Latin alphabet.

Forth and Clyde Canal Pathway

The Forth and Clyde canal pathway runs between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde and is a 106-kilometre (66 mi) long footpath and cycleway that runs across Scotland, between Bowling, west of Glasgow, and Lochrin Basin (Edinburgh Quay) in Edinburgh. The path runs on the towpaths of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals and is entirely off road. The path is well maintained and its surface is generally good, although there are some stretches particularly between Falkirk and the outskirts of Edinburgh where wet weather leads to muddy conditions unsuitable for road intended bicycles. It is well used by walkers and cyclists, and designated as one of Scotland's Great Trails by Scottish Natural Heritage. It also forms part of the National Cycle Network, being designated as Route 754. Sustrans advises that the path is best followed from the Clyde to the Forth because the prevailing wind is from the south west. Much of the path is also suitable for experienced horseriders, although in some places low bridges, narrow aqueducts and gates may restrict access for horses.

Gene Mason Sports Complex

The Gene Mason Sports Complex is a 55-acre (220,000 m2) sports field park complex located in Cumberland, Maryland. The park was dedicated in 1952 and geared towards organized team sports of baseball, soccer, football, valley ball, tennis, and basketball. A natural vegetation buffer exists along the Potomac River frontage, acting as a stormwater runoff filter and component of the Potomac River Greenway.

The north side of the park adjoins the C&O Canal Historic Park. The Canal Towpath is part of a trail network linking Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., via the Allegheny Highland Trail and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.

The park includes 4 ball fields, 4 soccer fields, 1 multi-use field, 3 sand volleyball courts, 4 tennis courts, horseshoe courts, and a BMX race track.

This complex is located in a flood plain. In general, The recreational facilities are a good use of flood plain land, as there is little potential for loss of life or major property damage. The complex is also located adjacent to and upwind from the wastewater treatment plant, which creates odor problems on occasion.

Illinois and Michigan Canal

The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. In Illinois, it ran 96 miles (154 km) from the Chicago River in Bridgeport, Chicago to the Illinois River at LaSalle-Peru. The canal crossed the Chicago Portage, and helped establish Chicago as the transportation hub of the United States, before the railroad era. It was opened in 1848. Its function was largely replaced by the wider and shorter Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, and it ceased transportation operations with the completion of the Illinois Waterway in 1933.

Illinois and Michigan Canal Locks and Towpath, a collection of eight engineering structures and segments of the canal between Lockport and LaSalle-Peru, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.Portions of the canal have been filled in. Much of the former canal, near the Heritage Corridor transit line, has been preserved as part of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.

Indiana Central Canal

The Indiana Central Canal was a canal intended to connect the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River. It was funded by the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act, Indiana's attempt to take part in the canal-building craze, started by the Erie Canal. $3.5 million was allocated for the project, the largest piece of the entire $10 million Act. However, due to the Panic of 1837, Indiana suffered financial difficulties and had to turn over the canal to the state's creditors, and building of the canal was stopped in 1839. The canal was supposed to extend 296 miles (476 km), from Peru, Indiana, to Evansville, Indiana, where it would reach the Ohio River. It was originally divided into two sections, North and South. Later, a third section was designated, called the Indianapolis section. Only eight miles were completed, with eighty additional miles between Anderson, Indiana, and Martinsville, Indiana, having been partially built.

Lagan Valley

The Lagan Valley (Irish: Cluain an Lagáin, Ulster Scots: Glen Lagan) is an area of Northern Ireland between Belfast and Lisburn. The Lagan is a famous river that flows into Belfast Lough. For a section, the river forms part of the border between the counties of Antrim and Down.

It has a number of interesting features including a towpath which runs alongside the River Lagan. The towpath is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists, dog owners etc. It is a very scenic and peaceful area and is ideal for walking, cycling etc. The towpath begins in the Stranmillis area of south Belfast and runs all the way to Lisburn. The cycle route forms part of National Cycle Route 9.There are a number of "off route" mountain bike trails along the towpath.

Lagan Valley is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The AONB was established in 1965 and the greater part of it lies within the Greater Belfast area.

Miami and Erie Canal

The Miami and Erie Canal was a 274-mile (441 km) canal that ran from Cincinnati to Toledo, Ohio, creating a water route between the Ohio River and Lake Erie. Construction on the canal began in 1825 and was completed in 1845 at a cost to the state government of $8,062,680.07. At its peak, it included 19 aqueducts, three guard locks, 103 canal locks, multiple feeder canals, and a few man-made water reservoirs. The canal climbed 395 feet (120 m) above Lake Erie and 513 feet (156 m) above the Ohio River to reach a topographical peak called the Loramie Summit, which extended 19 miles (31 km) between New Bremen, Ohio to lock 1-S in Lockington, north of Piqua, Ohio. Boats up to 80 feet long were towed along the canal by mules, horses, or oxen walking on a prepared towpath along the bank, at a rate of four to five miles per hour.

Due to competition from railroads, which began to be built in the area in the 1850s, the commercial use of the canal gradually declined during the late 19th century. It was permanently abandoned for commercial use in 1913 after a historic flood in Ohio severely damaged it. Only a small fraction of the canal survives today, along with its towpath and locks.

Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail

The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a multi-use trail that follows part of the former route of the Ohio & Erie Canal in Northeast Ohio.

The trail runs from north to south through Cuyahoga, Summit, Stark, and Tuscarawas Counties. The trail is planned to be 101 miles long and currently 85 miles of the trail are complete. When completed, it will run from Cleveland in the north to New Philadelphia in the south.

The Ohio to Erie Trail follows a portion of the towpath trail in Northeast Ohio.The towpath trail has been developed by a number of organizations. It is currently managed by Cleveland Metroparks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Summit Metro Parks, Stark Parks, and the Tuscarawas County Park Department.In 2003, The Stark County Park District voted to rename the 25 miles of the trail within Stark County the "Congressman Ralph Regula Towpath Trail". Regula was honored for his support in Congress for the Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canalway.The trail has multiple surface types including crushed limestone, hard packed surface, and asphalt.

Old Erie Canal State Historic Park

The Old Erie Canal State Historic Park encompasses a 36-mile (58 km) linear segment of the original Erie Canal's Long Level section. It extends westward from Butternut Creek in the town of DeWitt, just east of Syracuse, to the outskirts of Rome, New York. The park includes restored segments of the canal's waterway and towpath which were in active use between 1825 and 1917. It is part of the New York State Park system.

Thames Path

The Thames Path is a National Trail following the River Thames from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Charlton, south east London. It is about 184 miles (296 km) long. A path was first proposed in 1948 but it only opened in 1996.The Thames Path's entire length can be walked, and a few parts can be cycled. Some parts of the Thames Path, particularly west of Oxford, are subject to flooding during the winter. The river is also tidal downstream from Teddington Lock and parts of the path may be underwater if there is a particularly high tide, although the Thames Barrier protects London from catastrophic flooding.

The Thames Path uses the river towpath between Inglesham and Putney and available paths elsewhere. Historically, towpath traffic crossed the river using many ferries, but crossings in these places do not all exist now and some diversion from the towpath is necessary.

Towpath murders

The towpath murders was a case in which two teenage girls were murdered on the towpath near Teddington Lock on the River Thames, England, on 31 May 1953. Alfred Charles Whiteway (born 1931) was found guilty and hanged for the murders, which attracted a deal of press attention, the case being described at the time as "one of Scotland Yard's most notable triumphs in a century".

At the trial, defence counsel Peter Rawlinson had subjected lead detective Herbert Hannam to what was at the time considered a very sharp cross-examination on Whiteway's contention that the main evidence against him had been manufactured by police.

Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve

The Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve is a 740-acre (3.0 km2) site (including submerged areas) along the Mohawk River in the Town of Clifton Park, New York, near the hamlet of Vischer Ferry. It is owned by the New York State Canal Corporation, but Clifton Park maintains its extensive trail system under a special lease arrangement. The preserve also is known as Vischer Ferry Bird Conservation Area.

The preserve includes an original section of the Erie Canal and towpath, constructed in 1825. The main entrance to the preserve includes an 1862 Whipple Truss Bridge, a design commonly used to cross the Erie Canal.Numerous migratory bird species and at-risk bird species use the preserve as habitat. Among these species are:

Virginia rail

Green heron


American bittern


Common nighthawk

Rusty blackbirdThe preserve also includes an abundance of flora, both native and invasive, from hazelnut to bloodroot to white campion.

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