Lockhouse - Home of the Keepers

Modern day Lockhouse 49 Modern day Lockhouse 49

Left image
Credit: NPS/E. Cowan

Right image
Credit: NPS

Illustration of a Lock keeper trading with a Canaller. Lockkeeper Trading with a Canaller
NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

A Home for Whom?

An important person in the day-to-day operations of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was the lock tender (Lockkeeper). It was his duty to open and close the lock gates (Lift Locks) and to lock the boats through. He could be called upon to render this service at any hour of the day or night, and as compensation he received his house, an acre of land for a garden, and $150 a year. For each additional lock under his care, he received $50 extra, but he was expected to provide his own assistants to tend them. Married men and large families were preferred for the job of lock tender as this meant more hands to do the work.

Lockhouse construction

The construction of the lockhouses reflects the history of the construction of the canal and illustrates some of the difficulties that the Canal Company experienced in building the waterway. The lockhouses on the lower end of the canal, built during the earlier years, are of mostly solid brick or stone construction. As the financial condition of the Canal Company grew progressively worse, it was necessary to resort to a number of expedients in order to cut costs. As a result, the lockhouses toward the upper end of the canal were of cheaper wood and log construction.

The lockhouses were built on a simple rectangular plan like those on the Erie Canal. As in the case of the other canal structures, the company prepared detailed specifications for the construction of the lockhouses in 1829 and 1836. The buildings were to measure 30 by 18 feet with a cellar below and an attic above. The walls of the main story were to be 20 inches thick. The masonry and carpenter works were to be of the highest quality.

Floor plan for lock house 22 Lockhouse 22 Floorplan
Estimate of the Expense of a Lockkeeper's house
Stone and Brick
60 Cubic yards digging in foundation @$ .20 per yd. 12.00
124 Perches stone laid in clay, 3 inches in lime mortar @ 2.50 per p. 310.00
4000 Brick of goods quality laid in lime mortar @$10.00 per m. 40.00
60 Running feet blue stone in steps, lintels & sills @$ .25 per ft. 15.00
3250 Feet common white pine plank @$ .50 per 100 ft. 48.75
1822 Feet 4/5 hart pine @$ 2.75 per m. 50.18
4000 Shingles @$10.00 per m. 40.00
150 Pounds of nails @$ .08 12.00
Hardware 17.62
8 Square flooring including laying joists roof A 4.00 per s 32.00
Roof 32.56
6 Doors a 3.75 = $22.50 + 2 mantle pieces = $8 30.50
330 Feet washboard & surface a 4¢ = $13.20 + stair at $11 24.20
150 Feet partitions at 5¢ = $7.50 + Closet at $6.00 13.50
7 Windows = $42 + cellar door and frames at $7.50 49.50
Plastering on Walls A 22¢ per yd. 32.50
Plastering on laths A 30¢ per yd. 34.80
Painting 30.00
Crane for fireplace 3.50

What are their historical significance?

The lockhouses on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal are significant architectural resources, illustrative of the social, cultural and economic history of the waterway and the surrounding Potomac Valley. In these structures, lived the lock tenders who performed an important function in the day-to-day operations of the canal.

Lockhouses during major Potomac River Floods

Flood debris atop building. Johnstown Flood, 1889: Landmark #26
Library of Congress,

The Johnstown Flood, May 30 and June 1, 1889, wrecked havoc on the C&O Canal, setting the course for the canal's closure in 1924. This titanic flood swept down the Potomac, the crest of which was higher than any ever before recorded in the history of the valley. The torrent swept away many lockhouses, storehouses and sheds, and many masonry structures were heavily damaged. Among the lockhouses between Georgetown and Seneca that were affected by the flood were the following:

  • House at Lock No.5 $75.00 damage
  • House at Lock No.7 Swept Away
  • House at Lock No.8 Swept Away
  • House at Lock No.14 Swept Away
  • House at Lock No.15 $100.00 damage
  • House at Lock No.16 Swept Away
  • House at Lock No.17 $100.00 damage
  • House at Lock No.21 $250.00 damage

The flood in 1889 left the canal a wreck and forced the Canal Company to go into receivership with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad emerging as the majority owner of the Canal Company bonds. Under the railroad, trustees were appointed and the canal entered its last period of operation. In 1924, after the railroad had captured almost all of its carrying trade, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal ceased to operate.

Flood debris atop building. Flood. Spring 1936
Library of Congress,

A minor flood swept down the Potomac in March 1936, causing extensive damage to the deserted canal. Included in the damage to the waterway was the destruction of numerous lockhouses. According to various reports, the following structures were either partially damaged or completely swept off their foundations:

  • Back of lockhouse at Lock No. 33 Destroyed
  • Northwest corner of the lockhouse at Lock No. 33 Knocked in by heavy drift
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.40 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.41 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.44 Withstood high water that reached to within 3 feet of the peak of its roof
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.47 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.53 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.6 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.55 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.59 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.60 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.61 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.67 Swept Away
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.68 Foundation undermined
  • Lockhouse at Lock No.75 Foundation undermined

When the federal government acquired the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1938, the National Park Service promptly set about to restore the waterway as a scenic natural recreation area. As an experiment, it planned first to re-construct the 22 miles between Georgetown and Seneca Falls. Two Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established on the canal to carry out this project. Within two years the 22 miles section of the canal was extended to Seneca.

Read more the C&O Canal's lockhouses (NPSHistory: Lockhouses Historical Rescource Study).

Last updated: December 16, 2023

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