Lockhouse 6, C&O Ohio Canal

Posted by on Feb 11, 2013 in Blog, Newsletter | 9 comments

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

–  Click on the image to enlarge or purchase  –

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is one of the most intact and impressive monuments to the American canal-building era. The C&O Canal is unique in that it remains virtually unbroken and without substantial modification affecting its original character for its entire length of 185 miles.

Patowmack Canal Company

At Thomas Jefferson’s urging, George Washington resolved to take on the project of opening the Potomac river to navigation and build an overland connection to Ohio.  In 1784 the Patowmack Canal Company was chartered for this purpose with George Washington as its president.  However, George Washington was not the first person to try to open up the Potomac to navigation.

In the 1770s, John Ballendine, the first canal builder in Colonial America to overcome a waterfall by using by-pass and sluice canals, built a skirting canal with a grist mill around Little Falls, from the present site of Lock 6 to Fletchers Cove. George Washington’s Patowmack Canal Company used Ballendine’s inspiration more than 10 years later to create a series of skirting canals at Little Falls, Great Falls, Seneca Falls, and more, so boats could utilize the river while avoiding the dangerous sections.

Washington’s attention to the Patowmack Company diminished, firstly during his attendance at the Constitutional Convention and then as the country’s first president.  Work continued on the skirting canals but not at the pace hoped for.  The locks at Little Falls were finished in 1795 but proved of little use as the much more difficult channel around Great Falls was not completed for another seven years.  At last, in 1802, three years after his death, Washington’s dream of a navigable Potomac was realized.

Under the leadership of John Mason (son of George Mason), the company collected tolls for the next 25 years but was only able to show a profit for a single year.  After the short tenure of the Patowmack Canal Company, land was converted to the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The ground-breaking ceremony for the C&O Canal on July 4, 1828, occurred not far from where Lockhouse 6 now stands.

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

–  Click on the image to enlarge or purchase  –

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company

The C&O company ran into trouble almost immediately.  Skilled labor, at a price they were willing to pay, was in short supply.  The company brought two shiploads of workers from England but due to the unpleasant sea journey and difficult working conditions on the canal many of them broke their indentures and left.

The cholera epidemic of 1832 together with the worldwide banking panic of 1836 which prevented the sale of bonds which were a contingency for the State of Maryland to provide a $3 million loan added to the troubles.  The newly formed B&O Railroad was also throwing up as many legal roadblocks as it could to prevent  the development of the canal.

Eventually on October 10, 1850, the C&O Canal finally opened for business.  The total cost for the project was over $11 million.

During the years following the Civil War, the coal trade increased rapidly until in 1871, the peak year, some 850,000 tons were carried down the canal. During these few profitable years more than 500 boats were in frequent operation on the canal.  In the late 1870s the canal trade began to decline as many of the Allegheny coal operators began to ship over the B&O Railroad, the canal’s greatest competitor. This development, together with the effects of the nationwide economic depression in the mid-1870s and major floods in 1877 and 1886, again put a severe strain on the finances. In 1889 an enormous flood forced the canal company into receivership, and the B&O Railroad emerged as the majority owner of the company’s bonds. In 1924, by which time the railroad had captured almost all of the carrying trade, another damaging flood struck. This time the repairs necessary to resume operation were not made, and the active era of the canal came to an end.

C&O Canal National Historical Park

In 1938 the railroad, hurt by the Depression, sold the entire canal to the United States government, and the canal was placed under the National Park Service. In 1961, President Eisenhower proclaimed it a national monument. An act of Congress in 1971 authorized the acquisition of additional land and establishment of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

Lockhouse 6, C&O Canal, Montgomery County, Maryland

–  Click on the image to enlarge or purchase  –

Visitors to the park may find the surviving lockhouses to be quite charming in their tranquil setting along the towpath.  However, the one-and-a-half story buildings were small and very spartan homes when you consider the preference for large families to work.  The nicely preserved lockhouse at Lock 6 ( also known as “Magazine Lock” or “WilCalards Lock”) is one of the few still inhabited.

Many families lived in Lockhouse 6, including Martha King, one of the few women lockkeepers. She worked on the canal for 30 years and continued to live in the lockhouse after the National Park Service took over the canal in 1938. More remarkably, King became a park service employee at the age of 84!

Today, Lockhouse 6 has a new function as one of the first Canal Quarters lockhouses opened in 2010. Canal Quarters offers an extraordinary interpretive opportunity for people of all ages. Now, for the first time ever, you can stay overnight in a lockhouse and experience life as it may have been during a bygone era on the C&O Canal. Four lockhouses have been painstakingly rehabilitated and furnished to evoke different eras in the canal’s history.

Click here for a great guide to the history and current day sites of the C&O Canal

9 Comments

  1. What a fantastic read, Mark. It’s nice to know that several of these lockhouses have been restored to past times beauty. I’ll have to place this on my list of places to visit.

    The photos are really nice. They all look great, particularly enlarged. Nice job on this wonderful post, my friend.
    Jimi Jones recently posted..Across the InletMy Profile

    • Thanks, Jimi. There are a lot more preserved sites on the C&O canal, especially along the Clara Barton Parkway. Start at Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center or even a little further out at Swains Lock. Take the Clara Barton Parkway south to Georgetown. This way all of the stops are on your side of the road. It makes for a great day out especially in early spring when the daffodils or a little later in the season with the dogwoods. Some of the parking lots are very small so you may have to miss one or two, but you can always come back.

  2. Nice series, great post!
    Mike Criswell recently posted..The Last LightMy Profile

  3. I love reading the history behind the places you shoot Mark. Terrific shots as usual.
    Edith Levy recently posted..The Pool Deck at SunsetMy Profile

    • Comments like yours make all the research worthwhile. Thanks, Edith.

  4. What a totally terrific series, Mark! Love this site, that architecture is really fabulous. Love the landscape, too; your pictures are full of rich details that really highlight it all just perfectly!
    Toad Hollow Photography recently posted..The Heart Of DuncanMy Profile

    • Many thanks, Toad. Your comments are always greatly appreciated.

  5. I understand you may rent a few of the lock houses, can you tell me how to go about it. Sounds like it would be a great way to see the area. Thank you. Faye

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