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Historian Karen Gray

By Steven Dean

Karen Gray made many contributions to the C&O Canal. She researched history, volunteered as the C&O Canal NHP librarian and historian, managed the Level Walker program, organized symposiums, supported other parties books and studies, and supported many other activities. Another of her endeavors is very well known to Along the Towpath readers – her regular Accompanied by the Past feature.

For over 20 years, Karen provided insightful commentary on a wide range of topics related to the C&O Canal. Often her articles were related to the history and features of the route of an upcoming Douglas Memorial Hike or Fall Heritage Hike.  At other times she provided history related to the canal, its construction, its operation, the people who lived and worked on it, or the transition of the canal from a disused business to a national historical park. Research by Karen and others, including William Bauman, provided a constantly growing base of knowledge for Karen’s articles. Karen’s articles frequently featured relevant and interesting historical photos.  Karen’s articles were very popular with Along the Towpath readers, and many readers commented about the merits of Karen’s writing. Karen firmly believed in the importance of her work but was also the first to admit that our understanding of history was constantly evolving. Karen’s words from the December 2017 Along the Towpath sum those thoughts up:

Most of us think of history as about the past. And it is. But it never gives us back the real past and in truth our history is nothing more than what we think we know about some piece of the past at a given time, based on our sources at that time. As such, history changes and this is especially true in the present when, to an increasing extent and at an increasing speed, knowledge in almost every area of historical study has been changing and growing. This growth is due to the flood of new data and materials that subsequently require critical and scholarly analysis and interpretation.

Many people asked Karen and the C&O Canal Association if Karen’s articles could someday publish in a book. Karen was against that – she felt that some of her older articles could be rendered inaccurate as history evolved.  We respect Karen’s wishes and will not publish her writings in a book.

We may, at times, republish some of Karen’s articles in support of C&O Canal Association programs.  When we do that, we will note the date of the article and that certain factors may be out of date.  However, most of the content related to the canal’s features that hikers would encounter are still valid, and that information is quite helpful to event participants.

An archive of past Along the Towpath newsletters is available on this website. Karen’s past articles are indexed.  Readers should consider that some of the older articles may have some inaccuracies, but the articles are a great resource for an appreciation of archive link the canal and its history.

Karen Gray in park library  – Photo courtesy of the C&O Canal NHP, National Park Service.

Karen received many honors recognizing her work. She won the NPS 2022 regional Hartzog Award for Enduring Service, which recognizes a volunteer’s sustained service that has made a lasting impact on the park. Karen was honored for her significant work in the areas of historical study and documentation of the C&O Canal and for her volunteer program support.

Karen was the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Individual Leadership award from the Board of Trustees of the Maryland Historical Trust. They cited her substantial original research that improved the accuracy and understanding of canal histories.