In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously joined the effort to protect the C&O Canal’s unique beauty and preserve it as a “sanctuary for everyone.” Thanks to Justice Douglas and countless others, visitors can continue to marvel at its wild serenity. Picking up this torch of appreciation and advocacy for the Canal is a special group of C&O Canal Trust volunteers called Quartermasters, who help to maintain the lockhouses and assist guests of the Trust’s Canal Quarters program.
Lockhouse 21 Swains Quartermaster Francis Grant-Suttie
Francis Grant-Suttie, a Canal Trust board member and retired international conservationist, is delighted to be among the first Quartermasters to look after the newest Canal Quarters lockhouse at Swains Lock in Potomac. His appreciation for the C&O is driven by “joy and love” with warm memories of playing along the Canal as a child and bringing a date there during his high school years. Francis has a special connection to Swains, which he describes as “iconic,” recalling when it still had a concession stand. “You kind of fall in love with the canal and its lockhouses,” he mused, and is delighted to see the diversity of ages, races, and cultures among its five million visitors.
He started off in another volunteer role with the C&O Canal Trust but became a Quartermaster because he found the idea “intriguing,” and considers it like being a caretaker “with a historic tailwind behind it.” Francis’s passion for national parks runs deep. “It’s incumbent upon us plain Jane and plain Joe citizens to step in and help as best we can” to be ambassadors and stewards, he said. “It’s historic preservation. It’s our history. It’s our culture.”
Francis feels that the history reflected in the Canal Quarters lockhouses really speaks to guests, and believes that the canal can be a “sacred space…a place to get away from the clutter of modern life.” He is excited that Swains is at last available for overnight stays. “People will be able to feel its grace and history,” he said. “You may not remember your nights spent at a Marriott or Hilton…but you won’t forget your night in a lockhouse.”
Lockhouse 25 Edwards Ferry Quartermaster Don Street
Follow the Potomac River 14 miles upstream from Swains Lockhouse to Edwards Ferry and you will find Lockhouse 25, cared for by Quartermasters Don Street and Linda Bergofsky, his wife. Retired from the Air Force, Don is a self-described “long-time tinkerer and fixer-upper” who started his service to the C&O Canal with the bike patrol. Shortly after moving to Poolesville, Don saw a a notice in the local paper seeking a Quartermaster for Edwards Ferry. He leapt at the opportunity and soon Linda was involved too.
“We love the history aspect of Canal Quarters and how it connects [visitors] to the whole story of Poolesville [and] the Civil War here,” Don enthused.
Typical Quartermaster duties include routine maintenance, cleaning, and lawn care. With all the flooding last year, however, Don had to carry the lockhouse furniture to the upper floors of the lockhouse on more than one occasion, and deal with cleanup after the flood waters receded. His favorite part of the role, he said, is interacting with Canal Quarter guests and Park visitors, and talking with them about the history of the area, which he enjoys researching. He observes that families with young children enjoy the rustic atmosphere at Edwards Ferry because it’s like camping without the hassle of a tent and all the gear. Through-bikers appreciate being able to sleep in a bed for part of their journey. Even though this lockhouse, which represents the Civil War era, does not have modern amenities, there is still plenty to do. Visitors can explore the towpath, access the river at the nearby boat ramp, and even order pizza, delivered to the lockhouse from nearby Poolesville.
Don can remember when Swains Lock still had its concession stand and canoe rentals and says it “feels really good” to see it rehabbed and available to guests. The C&O Canal, he asserted, is “ideally located” in a densely populated part of our country. “Places like Yellowstone, Zion —you gotta go a long way to get there. Here’s a national park right in your backyard. People go down to the canal and say, ‘Wow!’”
With seven Canal Quarters lockhouses now open to guests for overnight stays, visitors can marvel at the history of the C&O Canal that each represents, savor the beauty along the towpath, and make memories of their own, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the faithful band of volunteer Quartermasters, without whose help Canal Quarters would not be possible.
Guest blogger Christine Rai is a college professor in the Washington, D.C. area with a passion for culture, food studies, and experiential learning. She writes about food, travel, and teaching at www.christinerai.com.