Renovation set for 180-year lock keeper’s house in Washington

lock keepers house washington

Amid the many monuments and memorials found on the Washington Mall, one structure stands out for a very different reason. The Lock Keeper’s House of the long-defunct Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is a 180-year old structure that sits at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW, approximately 1,000 feet north of the National World War II Memorial and less than 1,500 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

Originally the eastern terminal of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the structure was erected around 1835, part of an extension of the C&O Canal. The building was constructed as the house for the canal lock keeper, who collected tolls and kept records of commerce on the waterway.

Plans are underway to restore and relocate the venerable structure, part of a $7.5 million refurbishment that will take approximately two years to complete, according to an upcoming edition of American Heritage magazine.

The two-story stone block structure will be moved back from the busy intersection as part of the restoration.

The effort is being bolstered by a $1 million donation from the American Express Foundation, which will assist  National Park Service and Trust for the National Mall plans to renovate the house. The venerable structure will be used as a gateway to the revitalized 38-acre Constitution Gardens and nearby monuments.

The C&O Canal began as George Washington’s idea to open the Potomac River as an all-water transportation route to the Ohio River Valley, according to the C&O Canal Trust.

Within the nation’s capital, the canal passed along the present line of B Street in front of house, emptying into Tiber Creek and the Potomac River.

Construction on the C&O wasn’t completed until 1850 when the canal reached Cumberland, Md., a distance of 184.5 miles.

Plaque erected on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal lock keeper's house, Washington, DC, in 1928.

Plaque erected on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal lock keeper’s house, Washington, DC, in 1928.

The elevation of the Potomac River falls 605 feet between Cumberland and Washington, DC, and required the building of 74 lift locks by the canal company to accommodate the elevation change.

The canal company hired lock keepers who lived in company houses next to the locks they tended.

When the National Park Service purchased the canal in 1938 after the canal ceased operations, it also inherited the structures, according to the trust.

Within downtown Washington, the canal ran for approximately two miles, from the present day Navy Yard, across the Capitol grounds, and down present day Constitution Avenue.

Traffic on the Washington stretch of the canal declined by the 1850s as railroads became the preferred method for transportation. Political and financial squabbles left the canal poorly maintained, and the waterway was filled in in the 1870s, according to the National Park Service.

In the early part of the 20th century, the structure was used as a headquarters for the Potomac Park police. In 1940, the first floor of the building was converted to use as a public comfort station. Currently, the building is used for park maintenance storage.

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2 thoughts on “Renovation set for 180-year lock keeper’s house in Washington

  1. Nice building. Sort of thing you would buy to do up to make a nice home. Seven point five mill??!!

    Moving buildings is a bit like restoration of things that weren’t there. Not sure what I feel about it apart from fiddling with history.

    • It does kind of take a little of the historical significance if you move the lock keepers’ building away from where the canal was, doesn’t it?

      You know us Americans: History is what the government tells us it is.

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