We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
At 2 a.m., anything can seem scary. Though, that’s perhaps doubly true when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re alone in a secluded C&O Canal lockhouse built in the 1800s, a mile away from the nearest parking lot. Trees cast ghastly, ominous shadows all around you. Every noise—no matter how slight—sounds like an intruding presence lurking in the dark corners. There is no escape. There is no comfort.
This is the situation I found myself in on Friday night—Devil’s Night. For some reason, I thought it’d be a good idea to spend Halloween night alone in one of the C&O Canal’s six historic lockhouses that you can actually stay in. Perhaps I’d encounter a ghost! After all, I’m a believer in the supernatural, and parts of the C&O Canal—not far from where I was—are allegedly haunted. And what better opportunity to encounter a specter than on Halloween night?
Of course, they were all booked up for Halloween, so Friday night was my only option (the Canal Trust waived the fee for my overnight stay). Also, I wasn’t entirely alone—one of my friends, photographer Pablo Maurer, met me at the lockhouse about an hour after I arrived. We spent a few hours building a fire and taking some gorgeous, long-exposure shots of the lockhouse and its idyllic surroundings (of which you can see below). But, like the good friend he is, he departed at about 1:15 a.m. and left me with my inner demons. “I have to be at work early tomorrow, dude” he reasoned. Like I said, good friend.
So there I was, in the woods near Point of Rocks, Md. In a Canal Lockhouse built in—and furnished like—the 1800s. Alone.
But beyond the deeply unsettling atmosphere, I was struck by the particular charm of it all: There aren’t many places in the D.C. area—let alone on the East Coast—where you can experience such an authentic time warp. Sandwiched between the Potomac River and active railroad tracks, and just far enough away from any significant trace of civilization, Lockhouse 28—complete with ancient furnishings and furniture and a lack of heat, running water, and electricity—is perhaps the closest you can get to knowing what it’s like to live in 1800s. And that’s what the Canal Trust was aiming for when they first launched the Canal Quarters program.
The Trust first launched the program in 2009, with Lockhouse 22 in Potomac, Md. Since then, it’s restored five other lockhouses as lodging, with each one meant to represent a specific time period on the C&O Canal, from 1830 to 1954. Currently, the Trust is working to raise funds to restore a seventh lockhouse—Lockhouse 21 at Swains Lock—to join the Canal Quarters program sometime in the next couple of years. Ultimately, Canal Trust spokeswoman Heidi Glatfelter says, the Trust wants to restore all 26 lockhouses on the Canal for guests to stay in. Though that could take some time, given how much it costs to rehabilitate one of the lockhouses.
According a 2010 Washington Post article, each lockhouse costs between $120,000 to $150,000 to renovate. That’s paid by federal funds via the National Park Service, but the Canal Trust is responsible for furnishing each lockhouse, which costs about $25,000. With a monthly operating cost of about $5,000 to $10,000, it seems as though the Canal Quarters program is far from profitable and hardly seems worth the great costs it takes to maintain it. But having hosted more than 10,000 guests over 3,000 stays—the nightly cost to stay at one of the lockhouses, all of which sleep up to eight people, ranges from $100-$150—Glatfelter says that the program is no longer in the red, but “officially in the black.”
For the Swains Lockhouse, NPS has agreed to match whatever amount the Trust raises for restoration. They’re partnering with the Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern and the C&O Canal Association to raise $100,000—with the Trust raising $75,000 of it itself—toward rehabilitating the lockhouse, which “is in dire need of structural and architectural repairs,” Glatfelter says.
The next morning I’m down at Swains Lock to meet Glatfelter and take a tour of Lockhouse 21. I survived my night alone in Lockhouse 28 (no thanks to Pablo), though Glatfelter tells me that some NPS rangers knew a reporter was staying in the house and were considering coming up to mess with me. Holy shit am I glad they decided not to.
It’s not the best day to tour Swains Lockhouse, it turns out—recently, the historic house, which was built in 1832, was broken into and vandalized. Crude, illegible graffiti coats the outside of the house, while inside broken glasses and trash litters the floor thanks to the vandals.
Once the Trust raises the funds, the house, which in its current state is completely gutted and empty, will be renovated and refurbished to represent a specific era of the C&O Canal, though a specific historical theme has yet to be decided. Like the others, it will sleep at least eight (tightly, I might add—the lockhouse I slept in had four beds in two bedrooms, with each bed containing a pullout cot underneath), and it will be handicap accessible, with at least one cot on the first floor.
For years, the 26 historic lockhouses that line the C&O Canal stood deteriorating and unused—victims of vandalism, neglect, and the elements of nature. Through the Canal Quarters program, though, visitors see more than the rich history of the Canal; they get a chance to experience it.
Photos by Pablo Maurer