What was it like to be a lock keeper on the C&O Canal in 1916? Visitors are able to find out by spending the night at a historic lockhouse in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Lockhouse 21 is the seventh to be restored and opened to the public. It was occupied for 99 years by the same local family.
“This was actually my room — my bedroom,” says Bert Swain, visiting the lockhouse for the first time since its restoration was completed.
Swain was born in 1957 and spent the first 23 years of his life living in this small house, steps from the Potomac River. It’s just 10 miles north of D.C., but when Swain was growing up, it felt like a different world. There was no indoor plumbing, and the house was heated by wood stove.
“I had many mornings of waking up and jumping out of bed and running downstairs and changing next to the warmth of the wood stove,” recalls Swain.
During the 19th century, 64 lockhouses were built along the canal. They provided basic housing for lock keepers and their families, whose job it was to open and close locks for boats moving up and down the canal carrying goods like coal or timber.
“The lockgate design and concept is something that Leonardo Da Vinci had come up with hundreds of years before,” says Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. “By creating these locks, they were able to lift these very large canal boats, including the cargo which would weigh as much as 120 tons per boat.”
The idea for what would eventually become the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (connecting the Chesapeake Bay region with the Ohio River Valley) originated with the nation’s first president. “It was really George Washington’s vision of connecting the Eastern Seaboard — and all of the commerce and trade that could occur — with the interior resources of this continent.”
Brandt says the canal was the federal government’s first major infrastructure program, costing as much as the Apollo space program, adjusted for inflation. “These were really big ambitions that our country had at the time, in the 1820s and 30s,” says Brandt.
Those ambitions were carried out by working families, like the Swains. The family occupied Lockhouse 21 from 1907 to 2006, and they were involved in canal life even before that. Bert Swain says several of his ancestors helped build the canal in the early 1800s. Later, they owned canal boats — Bert’s father was born on one of them — before settling down in the lockhouse.
“Over the years, the family evolved from working on the canal, boating on the canal, lock tending to then taking people on guided fishing trips,” says Swain.
By the time baby Bert came along in the 50s, the canal was no longer a booming trade route. Instead it was becoming a popular spot for recreation. The family made a living renting out canoes and bikes. It was Bert’s job to handle all the kids from local summer camps.
“Busloads of kids would come out from these camps, they would drop kids off and they would either canoe or bike,” recalls Swain. “I had so much fun.”
By 2006, Bert Swain’s relatives had either died or moved on from lockhouse living. The house reverted back to the National Park Service, and it sat unused for about a decade.
The nonprofit C&O Canal Trust started restoring lockhouses about a decade ago. Becky Curtis, with the Canal Trust, says before that the buildings were empty and off-limits.
“They largely sat as scene-setters,” Curtis says. “That’s one way to do historic preservation, is just keep them up as much as you can to have them on the landscape so that when you’re riding by you see a lockhouse.”
She says lockhouses are special. After all, most buildings we choose to preserve tell the story of the nation’s elite — not the case for lockhouses.
“These lockhouses tell the story of who really kept America going,” says Curtis.
Read the full article on WAMU.