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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beyond the walls of the lock house, you can enjoy a campfire and picnic at the ADA accessible fire ring and picnic table behind.
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.
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.
On the way back we glimpsed a gorgeous sunset through the trees, reflected in the Potomac. The beauty and drama of the moment resonated.
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.
If you are a history buff and want a deeper dive, you’ll enjoy my series of blog posts for the C&O Canal Trust on Lockhouse 21, including life in 1916, Swain family history (including the original outhouses!), flood mitigation, and more:
- “A Flavor of Life at Swains Lockhouse”
- “Furnishing Lockhouse 21”
- “Protecting the Past”
- “Protecting the Past in the Face of Floods”
- “Changes at Swains”
- “Fighting Floods at Swains”
- “A Look at the Rehab Work at Swains Lockhouse”
- “Bringing 1916 Alive at Swains Lockhouse”
- “Canal Quartermasters’ Perspectives”
- “Newly-Renovated Swains Lockhouse Provides Glimpse into 1916 America”
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.
- Want to experience more local history? Check out my posts on Button Farm Living History Center, Haunted Poolesville Podcast, and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park.
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