Swains Lockhouse Renovation Blog Series Blog Post #10: Newly-Renovated Swains Lockhouse Provides Glimpse Into 1916 America

By | Swains

July 2019 ribbon cutting at Swains (Image: C&O Canal Trust)

Swains Lockhouse is officially open! After an intensive rehabilitation, Swains Lockhouse has joined the award-winning Canal Quarters program and is available to guests for overnight stays. There are now seven lockhouses in the program, and each contains special furnishings and details that tell the story of the C&O Canal’s history. Swains depicts 1916, but includes a mix of both traditional and twenty-first century features like a modern oven and stovetop (that only looks like a wood stove) and electricity.  If you’re visiting during Maryland’s hot and humid summers, you will enjoy the air conditioning, something that the lockhouse did not have prior to the rehabilitation.

Scrapbooks and wall hangings in the lockhouse educate guests on the year 1916: The U.S. was poised to enter World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected, the women’s suffrage movement was underway, the first woman was elected to Congress, and the National Park Service was established.

Two Swain siblings with guests renting canoes in the 1950s (Image: Bert Swain).

In addition to the 1916 interpretation, the lockhouse tells the story of the Swain family, generations of whom lived and worked on the C&O Canal and who are part of its history. Swain ancestors helped build the canal and owned and operated a fleet of canal boats, before transitioning to lock keepers living at Lockhouse 21 as the business of the canal evolved. After the canal closed to boat traffic in 1924, the Swain family started a concession business at Lock 21, providing guided trips, fishing gear, and boat and bike rentals to guests until 2006 .

The family lived in the lockhouse for 99 years, and Bert Swain, a C&O Canal Trust Board member who grew up in the house, credits this longevity with the lockhouse’s preservation. While other C&O Canal lockhouses and structures crumbled, the family cared for their home, which ultimately preserved this vital link to the past. With renovations complete, Bert Swain viewed his rehabbed childhood home with amazement, remembering his “magical upbringing” in which “every day was a different adventure.”





The large table in the dining room is perfect for meals and meetings. (Photo: Christine Rai)

Touring the Lockhouse

The front door leads to the 1880s portion of the lockhouse which is furnished as the dining room, dominated by a large table and chairs, with a corner curio cabinet, sideboard, and a fireplace creating a homey space.

An antique clock perched atop the mantel is flanked by a C&O Canal bugle that was used by an approaching boat captain to alert the lockkeeper of his approach. Historic photos of canallers hang on the walls, accompanied by interpretive text and questions to encourage discussion: “If you lived in 1916, would it have been acceptable to you to have your child work in a factory?  In the coal mines? On the canal? Why or why not?” The C&O Canal Crier News, a newsletter full of local and national news from 1916 lies on the the windowsill.

Savor meals atop antique china, check out a Canal horn, and share memories in the guest book. (Photos: Christine Rai)


Review the candidates’ credentials and cast your vote. (Photo: Christine Rai)

The next room is an ADA-accessible bedroom, with a Murphy bed and an accessible bathroom attached. Framed diagrams for the original 1916 Murphy bed patent are displayed on the wall above the bed. The bathroom contains modern conveniences that would not have been in the lockhouse for much of its active use: a toilet, sink, and shower. As a reminder of the Swain family’s experiences, a framed watercolor of the outhouse the family used until 1962 hangs on the bathroom wall. An interactive windowsill display allows guests to vote for presidential candidates Wilson or Hughes by placing a marble in a milk bottle.





The vintage-style kitchen sits at the far end of the house, filled with a mixture of reproduction and authentic furnishings. What appears to be a mid-19th century wood stove turns out to be quite high tech, its digital key pad hidden from view. Prior to the installation of plumbing, the Swains’ bath water was heated on the original stove. The fridge is hidden behind a Shaker-style cabinet door, and the soapstone counters are from the only remaining soapstone quarry in the United States.  An old washboard sits on shelving by the authentic enamel sink, and drawers are filled with utensils that could have been in a kitchen in 1916.

The kitchen is a mix of old and new elements. (Photos: Christine Rai)

On display are old irons, vintage cookbooks, and interpretive text about women’s work and the invention of the flyswatter. A small rectangular table illuminated by a green and yellow glass lamp completes the kitchen setup. An ADA-accessible picnic table and a firepit sit outside for guests who would like a more rustic cooking experience.

The kitchen has plenty of accoutrements to use and learn from. (Photos: Christine Rai)


The stairwell invites visitors to reflect on how our nation and Montgomery County were different in 1916. (Photo: Christine Rai)

In the stairwell hangs a 1916-era American flag, missing stars for Alaska and Hawaii, and framed 1916 maps for the United States and Montgomery County. At the top of the stairs is a comfortable sitting room – that was once Bert Swain’s childhood bedroom — with a velvet couch and chairs. Original details remain, such as the floors, patched with metal in some spots, doors retaining their beautiful old patina and skeleton keys, and a plexiglass window that shows the historic wall surface.

A toy box with toys from the era encourage children to explore, while a scrapbook of 1916 history and framed photos of the canal and members of the Swains family provide diversion for adults. In one windowsill rests a tribute to Jimmy the Goose, Jesse Swain’s loyal and beloved pet goose of 27 years.



Swains’ upper floor offers fun and relaxation. (Photos: Christine Rai)


Open this drawer to be transported back in time, courtesy of the Swain family. (Photo: Christine Rai)

Two bedrooms flank the sitting room, the upstream bedroom featuring a washstand, vintage kids’ books, and two trundle beds. The downstream bedroom has a beautiful full-size bed. In Alice-in-Wonderland style, a hangtag on a dresser drawer invites visitors to peruse the Swain family album, full of beautiful images and amazing memories, generously shared by Bert Swain.

The C&O Canal National Historical Park that surrounds Swains Lockhouse is full of outdoor recreation opportunities. “Here we are, 30 minutes outside of the center of Washington D.C, and all we’re hearing is water and wildlife,” Bert Swain said. “The fact that other folks will be able to enjoy the house overnight and see what it was like to be here on the canal, I think it is just great. I’m really happy we were able to accomplish this.”

The C&O Canal promises relaxation and rejuvenation (Image: “Serene Beauty at Violettes Lock,” Peter Moreno).

Book your stay at Swains Lockhouse now.

Read more about the history and renovation of Swains Lockhouse at







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

Swains Lockhouse Renovation Blog Series Blog Post #7: Quartermasters’ Perspectives

By | Canal Quarters, Swains

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.

Justice Douglas (far right) aboard the Canal Clipper (Image: NPS).

C&O Canal Lockhouse Quartermasters are exceptional volunteers (Image: Chris Stubbs).









Lockhouse 21 Swains Quartermaster Francis Grant-Suttie

One of the Quartermasters at Swains is Francis Grant-Suttie (Images: C&O Canal Trust).

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

Don Street and his wife Linda Bergofsky are Quartermasters for Edwards Ferry (Images: C&O Canal Trust).

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



Newly-Rehabilitated Swains Lockhouse to Join Canal Quarters Program

By | News, Swains

After three years of fundraising, planning, and construction, the doors to the newly-rehabilitated Swains Lockhouse will swing open to guests this summer. This historic lockhouse, located at a popular entrance point to the C&O Canal National Historical Park at Lock 21 in Potomac, Maryland, will join the C&O Canal Trust’s award-winning Canal Quarters program as the seventh lockhouse available to guests for overnight stays. Read More

Fighting Floods at Swains

By | Swains

The C&O Canal Trust is rehabilitating Swains Lockhouse to prepare it to join the Canal Quarters program. Former residents of this lockhouse, the Swain family, have decades of memories from their life in the house, when they endured several floods and crafted methods for protecting their home through necessity. Visitors can see the metal high water markers on the side of the house placed by family and various official entities. Bert Swain, who lived at Lock 21 from 1957-1980, generously shared his family memories and photos for this post.

Read More

Changes at Swains

By | Swains

The C&O Canal Trust is rehabilitating Swains Lockhouse at Lock 21 to become the newest addition to the Canal Quarters program. Bert Swain, who lived at Lock 21 from 1957-1980, generously shared his family memories and photos for this post about changes to the lockhouse and the family business over the years. Read More

Protecting the Past in the Face of Floods

By | Swains

Flood History

With its location along the Potomac River, it’s not a matter of if the C&O Canal and its lockhouses will be flooded but when. The Canal has experienced flooding ranging from inconvenient to destructive throughout its history. In early June of this year, the Potomac reached its highest level in 8 years as rehabilitation work continued at Swains Lockhouse. Read More

Furnishing Lockhouse 21

By | Swains

Canal Quarters Program

The Canal Quarters program hosts visitors for overnight stays in lockhouses to deepen their appreciation for the Canal’s history. Each lockhouse has been furnished to represent a time period in American history, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience life as a lock keeper once lived. Swains Lockhouse is currently being rehabilitated and will be furnished as it could have appeared in 1916, with some creative liberties in the amenities and an ADA-accessible first floor. Read More

Work at Swains is finally beginning!

By | News, Swains

Two years ago, we announced the rehabilitation of Swains Lockhouse and successfully raised $75,000 for the project. Well, the wheels of historic preservation sometime turn slowly, and we encountered several delays while we looked for a contractor who could restore Swains to its former glory in a fiscally-responsible manner. We persevered and are thrilled that construction began last week on the rehab! Read More

C&O Canal’s Swains Lockhouse Rehabilitation Awarded $100,000 Centennial Challenge Grant

By | News, Swains

The C&O Canal Trust announced today that the National Park Service Centennial Challenge Program has provided a $100,000 matching grant to support the rehabilitation of Swains Lockhouse in Potomac. The grant, supported by Maryland Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, will be matched by $108,160 raised by the C&O Canal Trust, the Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern, and the C&O Canal Association. It will be used to fund deferred maintenance on a critically-endangered lockhouse. Read More

Meet interpretive intern Ellen Blackmon

By | Swains

If you’re researching the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, your Google search shouldn’t pose any problems. But what if you had to profile Mary Virginia Swain, a woman who lived an unassuming life in a lockhouse on the C&O Canal in the early 1900s? Read More

The birth of Canal Quarters

By | Swains

How did the rundown lockhouses along the Canal turn into Canal Quarters, an award-winning program that over 10,000 people have experienced? This week, we will take a look at the development of the program, which the Swains lockhouse will join after its rehab is complete. Read More

Swains Lockhouse showcases the Historic Preservation Training Center’s passion for history and craftsmanship

By | Swains

There’s a lot of love going into the Swains Lockhouse rehabilitation. It comes from the C&O Canal Trust that chose the Swains home for their newest Canal Quarters guest house, and it comes from the National Park Service (NPS) that is pouring its resources into interpreting the home as it appeared in 1916. The result will be an experience that Canal Quarters guests will cherish forever. Read More