C & O Canal Lock 21

Travel: C&O Canal Swains Lockhouse Overnight

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Our family loves travel, history, and nature. Bonus if we can stay somewhere unique on our trips. Luckily we’ve found an experience that combines all three of our loves with the bonus: the Canal Quarters program, which allows guests to stay in renovated C&O Canal lockhouses. We first fell in love with this program at Lockhouse 10 near Glen Echo Park. We’ve been enjoying the beauty and fun of the C&O Canal for years so it was a natural decision to try out a lockhouse stay.

Lockhouse 21 and the family
Lockhouse 21 is an authentic and recently renovated C&O Canal lock keeper’s cottage.

The C&O Canal is one of our country’s most unique national parks, offering an convenient escape to nature in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. After the Canal was taken out of commission due to the railroad’s dominance and a series of natural disasters, it sat idle for decades and was slated to be paved over. Luckily a Supreme Court justice advocated for preserving its beauty and it eventually became a national park. In additional to the National Park Service, the Canal is maintained and managed by the C&O Canal Trust non-profit.

C & O Canal Lock 21
Lock 21 is a beautiful spot on the 184.5 mile long C&O Canal towpath.

Canal Quarters lock houses offer a range of amenities and comfort levels–some are quite rustic, without electricity (for a more authentic experience) or indoor plumbing and others are fully modernized, with electricity, indoor plumbing, and heating/air conditioning. Lockhouse 21 is special for another reason; it is the only Canal Quarters option that is ADA-accessible, making this extraordinary experience more accessible for all. It includes a ramp for the main level of the house, an accessible full bathroom, and a custom Murphy bed. Each lock house has been decorated to represent a specific time period in American history, with furnishings and accessories crafting a narrative that guests experience firsthand.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21 details
C&O Canal Lockhouse 21 is full of historical details. From top left to right: a cast iron kettle, a popular cookbook of the era, and vintage dishes. From bottom left to right: a velvet couch, vintage light, and toy box with typical toys of the time.

Lockhouse 21 is the newest of the Canal Quarters options and represents 1916, a time of transition for the United States. Each piece of furniture, decorative item, and display was researched and carefully sourced for guests. Staying in Lockhouse 21 not only allows you to learn about history but to experience it firsthand in an intimate and authentic setting.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21 details
Staying in Canal Quarters lockhouses is an immersive experience into history. Top left to right: bathroom cabinet reflecting framed art of original outhouse, typical children’s books of the era, and a hardware detail. Bottom left to right: kitchen tools are what could have been used in 1915 and the new bathroom makes this washstand just an option.

This lockhouse not only captures this era but also shares poignant stories about the Swain family, who called it home for generations. A Swain family scrapbook invites exploration, family photos are literally right at home, and a display in the second floor sitting room is a tribute to a very special Swain family pet.

C & O Canal Swain lock house 21
The second floor sitting room of Swains lock house contains a tribute to Jimmy the Goose, a beloved family pet.

When we arrived at Swains, we immediately explored every inch of the lockhouse, opening doors and drawers, reading informational text and displays, and figuring out who was going to sleep where. Though it has been reonovated to have modern amenities and to meet requirements for safety issues like fire mitgation, its old bones still shine through. The upstairs floorboards are textured and patched in places with riveted metal; downstairs, windows set into walls allow guests to see what’s under the smooth modern plaster layer.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
The landing up to the second floor includes a circa 1915 US map, American flag, and Montgomery County map.

After settling in, we went back and read the displays more carefully, discussing what we learned with each other. As a food nerd, I particularly enjoyed the details in the kitchen, including the vintage style-stove, retro kitchen tools, and classic cookbooks.

kitchen utensils C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
The kitchen utensils are not only functional but instructive. Can you guess what some of the implements in the drawers are for?

Beyond the walls of the lock house, you can enjoy a campfire and picnic at the ADA accessible fire ring and picnic table behind.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21 picnic site
The picnic site is nestled between the lock house and the hillside above it, a perfect place to relax after a day on the towpath or river.

And of course, the beauty of a National Park is right outside your door, with all the flora, fauna, and recreation. Walking, cycling, biking, birding, fishing, and boating are all excellent options.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
The gentle curves of the Potomac and the alluring mystery of its islands make the towpath a memorable place.

We opted for a long walk, with my Dad stopping periodically to cast a line. Along the way we sighted numerous birds and fish and enjoyed the ethereal mist hovering over the Potomac River. The kids enjoyed skipping stones across the Canal’s smooth surface. It was a beautiful winter’s day.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
The towpath is bordered by water under the expansive winter sky. Top left to right: the dual bodies of water mirror clouds and light and beavers have been working to bring down this large tree. Bottom left to right: tall trees line the towpath and the Canal itself has some good fishing spots.

On the way back we glimpsed a gorgeous sunset through the trees, reflected in the Potomac. The beauty and drama of the moment resonated.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
Just outside the lockhouse and across the Canal is a flat expanse of land down by the Potomac, a peaceful spot to listen to the flowing water and calling birds.

Back at the lockhouse, we enjoyed dinner cooked on the vintage style stove. After dinner, we played Wig Out! and had hot chocolate with S’mores at the big dining room table. And as night fell, and each of us slept deeply from the day’s fresh air, surrounded by the serenity of nature.

C&O Canal Lockhouse 21
The hot chocolate and marshmallow may be modern recipes but the cup and tablecloth would have been familiar sights in 1916.


Interested in staying at Swains Lockhouse, or one of the other Canal Quarters options? Visit the C&O Canal Trust’s Canal Quarters webpage for more information and to book your stay.

Thank you for reading this post on supporting and visiting C&O Canal Quarters Lockhouse 21.

Have you ever visited the C&O Canal? Please share your favorite memory in a comment.

Taste travel teach
Enjoy fab flavors, explore cool places, and savor learning with this funky prof!

One Comment

  1. Jeanean Martin

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your stay here at Swains loch house. What a fun and interesting adventure for you and the family. I frequently paint along the canal and love exploring all the different places along the C&O. Will have to go to this one soon.

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