Lockkeepers - Caretakers of the Canal

Park Ranger turning a lock key to let water out of the Lift Lock. A canal boatman prepares to hand off the snubbing lines to a lock keeper.

Right Side: Canal Boat Entering a Lock

Left Side: Park Ranger Using a Lock Key
NPS/ E. Cowan


Introducing, the Lock keeper!

There are 74 Lift Locks along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The C&O Canal Company required that each Lift Locks were operated and monitored by hired staff. These hired staff would be given a Lockhouse near the lift lock(s) they were to operate, an acre of land to farm, and a yearly salary. They called these people lock tenders or lockkeepers.

Illustration demonstrating how a lock keeper operates a Lift Lock. Lockkeeper operating a Lift Lock
NPS/ Harpers Ferry Center

Duties of a Lockkeeper

There were many responsibilities a lock keeper must do besides operating a Lift Lock.

  • Report to their superintendent any damages to the locks or embankments of the canal.
  • Must be present day or night when a Lift Lock was being operated.
  • Prohibited from leaving the area near the Lift Lock without permission.
  • Required to educate any canal boat captain on safely navigating through a lock.
  • Write up fines for any canal boat captain breaking the canal guidelines.

Reputable Lockkeepers

Even though many of the lock tenders were undisciplined and indifferent to their responsibilities, there were some whose devotion to their duties were recognized and rewarded. Some lockkeepers were promoted to positions as division superintendents in recognition of their responsible contribution to the operation of the canal.During the summer of 1841, then company finances were desperately low, the keepers and other officers either were not paid for months or received their pay in lower amounts, as much as 50%. Even though they were not paid for months, there is no indication that many of the lockkeepers left the line during this period. This wasn’t that only time during the canal’s operation that this occurred.To lock keepers demonstrated their loyalty to the canal company under similar circumstances during the waning years of the independent existence of the waterway.

  • In November 1877, all company officers, toll collectors, and lockkeepers who were not involved in repair work were removed from company payroll.
  • During the winter of 1883-84 the pay of the lock tenders was reduced by 50%.
  • In June 1885 it was reported that most of the tenders were waiting patiently for their overdue wages.
  • In 1889 just prior to the major flood in late May the company reported again that the tenders were faithfully carrying out their duties although they had not been paid for some time.

Family Roles

Historical photo of two young girls with family standing aboard a canal boat. Synder Family

The C&O Canal company preferred to hire men with large families. They deemed that married men would provide a more responsible service along the numerous isolated stretches of the canal than would those were single. Larger families meant more hands to do work, which worked to the advantage of lockkeepers managing more than one lock. Older children could operate the locks, relieving the lockkeeper’s need to hire an assistant.

Sometimes women held the role as lock keeper but were usually the widows of the passing tender. In March 1835, the board discharged all women lockkeepers with the interest of a more efficient operation. Employing women was also against the general social values at the time and that the physical effort needed to operate a lock was better suited for men.

Some exceptions were made since there were several women working as lockkeepers and continued to make case-by-case exceptions as the years went on.


More about Lockkeepers!

Last updated: December 16, 2023

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