Park Service renting out bits of history on C&O Canal
Jul. 21, 1999

Lockhouses made available in effort to preserve them

by Simone Wellington

Staff Writer

Imagine living in a 160-year-old historic stone house surrounded by sycamore trees. Picture a porch overlooking a river gurgling by. Now imagine living only several feet from the towpath of the C&O Canal.

The National Park Service has made two historic lockhouses along the C&O Canal in Potomac and Bethesda available for lease to the public.

Sonny Sanders, a National Park Service historical architect, said the idea to lease the houses came as part of an effort to preserve the structures.

"The more word we get out, the more we can save," he said. "With the little money we have, they might get attention, they might not."

Lock 6 and Lock 10 are the sites for the two houses available for lease. Both are situated directly off the Clara Barton Parkway, between Great Falls and the District. Both houses rent for $1,300 per month.

Following the standard plan for lockhouses, the 18-foot by 30-foot houses are two stories, each with a basement. A kitchen and living space are on the first floor while two bedrooms and a full bath make up the second level.

Lockhouses were constructed along the 76-lock canal to board its lockkeepers. Construction began on the canal in 1828 to transport cargo -- ranging from coal to whisky -- from the District to Cumberland. A 700-foot rise in elevation between the two points created the need for a system of locks to raise and lower the water level for the boats.

Lockkeepers living in the houses opened and closed the gates as necessary after completion of the canal in the early 1850s. Competition by the railroad industry did away with the need for the water system, but the houses remain.

The historic leasing idea came out of Congress in the early 1980s as a way to generate money for the park. Today, Sanders is showing the houses to perspective residents and even business people. He said the property can be used as a residence or a private business that is not park related. The only stipulation is that tenants must agree to maintain the properties, which are each 1/5 an acre.

A private parking space is available for each house, but privacy is not one of the amenities.

"You don't come here for seclusion," Sanders said. The C&O towpath runs along both properties. Canoers and dog walkers abound in the morning and evening hours.

Some of the people that frequent these areas are the same people interested in renting the houses.

"We've had an awful lot of interest. It's close to Washington, the price is right, the only disadvantage is that people have to realize that it can flood, [although] now we have the technology to warn people," Sanders said.

The Lock 6 property is on an island and is at risk should the river flood. The Lock 10 house, however, is above the floodplain.

Both houses are constructed with stone and have central heat. Window units provide air conditioning for the naturally cool houses in the summer. Light shines through some original beveled glass windows onto pine floors, some of which have been carpeted. The stones of the Lock 6 house have been painted white with maroon trim whereas the Lock 10 house remains differing shades of natural browns with hunter green trim.

The lockhouses are two of the 44 properties the park service hopes to lease. Some of the structures need major renovations but all realistically could be repaired.

"I have enough names to lease every property on the canal very quickly," Sanders said. But the bureaucratic process takes time, he said, so he is showing the houses regularly to perspective tenants.

He wants people to move in soon though.

"We've got some properties with trees this big growing out of the foundation," he said, holding his hands in a wide circle. "[They are] going to waste just like [this lockhouse] would."