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Spend the Night with History: The Making of the C&O Canal Quarters Program

by Heidi Glatfelter Schlag, Director of Communications, C&O Canal Trust on

Tucked along the C&O Canal (which runs through DC, MD, and WV) are over twenty stone structures that pay testament to the canal era, when boat horns would sound and lock keepers would scamper from the beds to open the locks. Today, visitors are invited to stay overnight in the lockhouses and experience life as a lock keeper–although with no boats to lock through, guests can enjoy their days hiking or biking, and their nights by a campfire.

 

Lockhouse 6 is perched along Lock 6 in Brookmont, MD, at mile marker 5.4

Lockhouse 6 is perched along Lock 6 in Brookmont, MD, at mile marker 5.4

 

The Canal Quarters program, a partnership between the C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal National Historical Park, has restored six lockhouses within the Park to provide overnight interpretive experiences for guests. Each has been furnished to depict a different time period from the 1830s to the 1950s, and a stay in all six lockhouses will allow visitors to trace the history of the Canal.

The program was conceived as an innovative way to creatively reuse the deteriorating lockhouses that sat on Park property, and since its launch six years ago, has won three major preservation awards in recognition of its success.

The Park Service handled the rehabilitation and preservation work, and C&O Canal Trust Board Member and project volunteer Robert Mertz handled the furnishings. But he wasn’t preparing a typical furnishing plan, because all six lockhouses would need to host up to eight overnight guests at a time. All furnishings would be touched, sat in, slept in, and cooked on. They also each had to adhere to a different time period in keeping with the interpretive themes.

 

The upper floor of Lockhouse 25 in Poolesville, MD showcases period beds and reproduction trundles.

The upper floor of Lockhouse 25 in Poolesville, MD showcases period beds and reproduction trundles.

 

For beds, he used a combination of single, double, and trundle beds. As he figured out how to sleep eight people while ensuring they would have room to move around when they were awake, he assembled a list of the needed furniture, along with recommendations on sources and cost. He knew everything he selected needed to be durable, and also simple, “as befitted a lower income family” that would be living the life of a lock keeper. An antique enthusiast, Mertz located most of the furnishings at antique shops, estate sales, and auctions.

Canal Quarters Lockhouse 10 contains several of Mertz’s unique finds, including three U.S. Quartermaster Corps M1905 beds and a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) chest owned by the family of Dr. William Knott, a surgeon who served in the 305th Company of the CCC during the 1930s. In the kitchen stand an authentic 1928 Westinghouse stove and a 1934 Kelvinator refrigerator, both restored and fully-functional.

 

The 1930s Westinghouse stove and ice chest are the highlights of Lockhouse 10’s kitchen.

The 1930s Westinghouse stove and ice chest are the highlights of Lockhouse 10’s kitchen.

 

In situations where Mertz couldn’t locate appropriate antiques, he had reproductions made. “For trundle beds in the nineteenth-century lockhouses (22, 25 and 28), Mount Vernon allowed me to photograph and measure a trundle bed they had. A friend who was a skilled cabinet maker made me twelve.”

The Canal Quarters lockhouses have grown in popularity each year they have been open, recently hosting their 11,000th guest. The guest books allow our visitors to record their wonderful adventures. Frequent are stories from children originally loath to unplug from technology all weekend who write joyous accounts of hikes in the woods, the discovery of frogs, the family games of dominos and Lincoln Logs, and the enchantment of living in the forest –iPads and TVs completely forgotten. All lockhouses have also hosted numerous birthday and anniversary parties, holiday celebrations, family reunions – and even a few weddings!

A group of volunteers called Quartermasters are an integral part of the program – they are the caretakers of the lockhouses, helping guests and doing maintenance as needed. It costs between $100-$150 a night to reserve a lockhouse, depending on which one you select. All proceeds from the program go right back into the continued preservation and maintenance of the lockhouses.

 

Lockhouse 10, in Cabin John, MD, features a screened-in porch and is nestled in the trees above the canal and towpath.

Lockhouse 10, in Cabin John, MD, features a screened-in porch and is nestled in the trees above the canal and towpath.

 

You can see more photos of the Canal Quarters and reserve your lockhouse stay by visiting the C&O Canal Trust’s website.

We have also started the rehabilitation of a seventh lockhouse. You can follow along on our blog

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Heidi Glatfelter Schlag is the Director of Communications at the C&O Canal Trust.

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