Historic Resources in the Park
The C&O Canal began as George Washington’s idea to open the Potomac River as an all-water transportation route to the Ohio River Valley. Construction began on the canal in 1828 in Georgetown, and was completed in 1850 when the canal reached its terminus in Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of 184.5 miles. The elevation of the Potomac River falls 605 feet between Cumberland and Washington, DC, and thus 74 lift locks were built by the canal company to accommodate this elevation change.
The canal company hired lock keepers who lived in company houses next to the locks they tended. When the National Park Service purchased the canal in 1938 after the canal ceased operations, it inherited some 60 buildings including several of these lockhouses, of brick, stone or wood construction. Damage from flooding and neglect made some unserviceable, but others were well-maintained by those families who continued to live in the houses after the canal closed. Locks named for these residents are retained today, such as Rileys Lock, Violettes Lock, Swains Lock, and Pennyfield Lock. Of the 57 lockhouses that operated on the C&O Canal, only 26 presently remain.