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What is a Towpath?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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A towpath is a long, flat path that runs along the banks of a river or canal, usually on one side only, although sometimes on both. In some cases, towpaths may periodically switch sides to accommodate changing environmental conditions or easements. They occasionally vary in width or construction as they pass through different areas, reflecting conflicts between their builders. The towpath is an example of obsolete water transport infrastructure that has been repurposed for uses other than those originally intended.

Towpaths were initially put in place to provide level ground for crews of animals and people towing watercraft. With sail boats, it was sometimes not feasible to sail safely on rivers and canals. Human power for watercraft in the form of rowers was also not always an option. Instead, teams were hitched up and walked along the towpath to pull the craft through the water. This required substantial infrastructure to provide housing and support for teams and supervisors so that they would be available when needed.

Mechanical engines were sometimes used to tow from the shore as well. With the introduction of engines into boats, towpaths began to fall into disuse because boats no longer required tow teams to move along lakes and rivers. In some regions, towpaths were allowed to enter a state of disrepair as they were no longer being used for their intended purpose.

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In others, people recognized that the towpath could have a secondary use as a recreational trail. Towpaths are wide, flat, and even, making them suitable for pedestrians, people on horseback, bikers, wheelchair users, and many other people who might be interested in ambling by a river. Paths by rivers may be enjoyed for their view and some are connected to hiking trails that allow people to spend days at a time on the trail, hiking from one spot to another. Towpaths are also used for organized sporting events, such as marathons and bike races, because they are long, and they are an excellent alternative to closing streets for events.

In areas where there is a long history of commerce by water, it is not uncommon to find a towpath or the remnants of one used as a recreational area. Some of these regions have also embarked on environmental cleanup programs to address pollution leftover from the days of commerce and restore wetlands. These programs are designed to make waterways more pleasant to navigate and more enjoyable to visit.

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