Just down the hill from the Washington Monument, a curious old cabin watches over eight lanes of traffic on Constitution Avenue to the bewilderment of uninitiated passersby. The nearly two-century-old residence recalls the bygone era when a stinky, malarial canal bisected the center of the Federal City.
From 1835 to 1855, a C&O employee lived in the house to collect fares and help barges navigate the canal locks. This was the terminus of the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal, a continuation of that which runs northerly out of Georgetown (and entirely separate from the Washington City Canal). The Lock keeper (or one of his 13 children) was expected to man the station at all hours to service the heavy traffic anticipated by canal planners.
However, that finicky interurban waterway (Washington City Canal) quickly proved itself an economic failure and deadly serious pedestrian hazard. Not only did the barge traffic fail to live up to expectations, but it wasn’t long before the canal started gobbling up vehicles and foot traffic. In 1839 a wobbly horse-drawn omnibus fell into the canal, and the Washington Evening Star later rechristened it The Man Trap, “because of the number of persons who have walked into it and drowned.”
By 1855 the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal was abandoned, the Lockkeeper moved away and squatters took up residence in his old stone house. The canal fades from history. Alexander Shepherd and the Board of Public Works had Washington City Canal bricked partially over in 1871, creating B street over top (later renamed Constitution Avenue, NW-1931).
The Lockkeeper’s House was successively reborn as a Park Police jail cell, and later as an NPS “public comfort station” (read: bathroom). Public access to the house came to an end in the 1950s and ever since it’s been used to store park maintenance equipment. It was moved in the 1910s.
On October 12, 2017, the Lockkeeper’s House was again moved – this time 50 feet back from Constitution Avenue. Future planned work will add a visitors plaza, interpretative historical signage, and a visitor-friendly entrance. Thankfully, the Lockkeeper’s House will live on as an eternal memorial to the first attempts to drain the Washington canal.
Far from the only extant reminder of the canal days, the Lockkeeper’s House has company in the old Watergate near the Watergate Complex, and bricked up (but still water-filled) river of sewage under Constitution Avenue.