Live Like a Lock Keeper (but with more sleep)

Cyclists along a canal

As you sleep peacefully in a lockhouse nestled beside the C&O Canal, you’ll experience what life was like for the lock keepers who lived there over 100 years ago. (Except every time they heard a canal boat horn, they had to spring from their beds to open the locks.) During your stay in one of those lockhouses, you can roll over and catch a few more winks, or get up and enjoy the scenic surroundings as you sip your first cup of joe.

The C&O Canal National Historical Park, which runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD, preserves the historic structures that served as the main transportation route for goods traveling from the Ohio River valley to eastern markets during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Long before coal, wheat, and other crops were hauled on tractor trailers on the nation’s highways, they were floating down the C&O Canal on a boat pulled by a pair of mules. 

The canal, an engineering marvel nicknamed “The Grand Old Ditch,” lost the race west to the B&O Railroad not long after it opened for business, although it saw boat traffic until 1924. Today, the park is a popular spot for hikers, cyclists, paddlers, birders, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts who enjoy the smooth, flat towpath that runs the length of the Park — so named for the mules who “towed” the boats along that path. 

Canal with trees with golden leaves and blue sky
Photo Credit: MJ Clingan Photography

Seven of the canal’s historic lockhouses have been rehabilitated and are open to guests for overnight stays as part of the C&O Canal Trust’s Canal Quarters program. Authentic period furnishings add a quaint vibe, depicting different time periods in the canal’s history, and interpretative materials enrich your stay. The lockhouses all sleep up to eight people and are surrounded by the beautiful C&O Canal National Historical Park. Spend your days on the trail and your evenings around the campfire, under the stars.

Past guests have celebrated all types of occasions at the lockhouses, from birthdays to anniversaries and holiday parties. But since the pandemic began in 2020, the lockhouses have become a popular spot for families to have a socially-distant vacation. Your group will have the lockhouse to yourself for the duration of your stay, and you can recreate in the safety of the great outdoors.

Family in front of a campfire and a house
Guests enjoy a campfire at Lockhouse 49 in Clear Spring, MD. Photo Credit: Frederick Magazine

There are three lockhouses with full amenities, including electricity, heat, A/C, running water, and full bathrooms and kitchens (Lockhouses 6, 10, and 21.) Lockhouse 21 is ADA-accessible, with a Murphy bed and bathroom on the first floor and a wheelchair ramp. Three lockhouses are rustic, without these amenities, but with a portable toilet and water pump nearby. These lockhouses provide guests with a truly authentic historic experience (Lockhouses 22, 25, and 28). Lockhouse 49 has electricity, but no running water.

Lockhouse 21 is locally known as “Swains” for the family that lived there for generations. Members of the Swain family helped to build the canal before taking up residence in Lockhouse 21 as lock keepers. When the canal closed the boat traffic in 1924, the family opened a concession stand at the lockhouse and rented canoes and kayaks to visitors. Today, Lockhouse 21 features old photographs and family lore from the Swains. The house is right off River Road in Potomac, less than six miles from 495.

Lockhouse with a porch
Lockhouse 10 in Cabin John, MD. Photo Credit: C&O Canal Trust

Located downstream on the other side of 495, Lockhouse 10 tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who worked to preserve the canal in the 1930s. Part of the New Deal, the two CCC groups that worked on the C&O Canal were both comprised of African Americans. The lockhouse now contains several CCC-issued furnishings, as well as historic photos and scrapbooks. Locks 8-14 are all within a 1.25 mile stretch here, and are locally known as “Seven Locks.” Both Seven Locks Road and Seven Locks Elementary School get their name from this area of the canal. Lockhouses 6 and 10 are also within a bike ride of the nation’s capital, providing a great home base for explorations of the museums and monuments on the National Mall.

Besides providing guests with a unique experience, a stay in a lockhouse also supports a greater good: all fees for the program are reinvesting back in the ongoing preservation of the lockhouses.

A Canal Quarters lockhouse can be your home-away-from-home for your C&O Canal adventure.

Book your stay back in time at www.CanalQuarters.org.


Lead Photo: Cyclists pass Lockhouse 28 in Point of Rocks. Photo credit: Frederick Magazine/Turner Photography

About the Author

Heidi Schlag

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag is a marketer, history lover, and budding photographer who loves exploring museums, parks, small towns, and farms. She lives in Frederick, MD, with her husband and two dogs, and can be found on Twitter @heidigschlag.

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