Lockkeeper's House

The Lockkeeper's House Constitution Avenue Northwest & 17th Street Northwest Washington

VAMONDE Washington D.C.
Written By VAMONDE Washington D.C.

Down the street from the National Mall sits a relic from Washington's past: the Lockkeeper's House. In existence since 1833, it was built in anticipation of ever-increasing boat traffic bringing goods into the city center through a network of manmade canals. From 1833 until 1855, the house acted as a tollway between the C&O and Washington City canals.

During the twenty-something years when the locks were active, a C&O employee lived in the house. He or one of his 13 children were expected to collect tolls from shipping traffic and help boats navigate the canals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The amount charged depended on the type of cargo and the distance it was transported.

Though its construction was backed by many city officials including George Washington, the Washington City canal turned out to be a wrong move in urban planning. Because it was dug only three feet deep, the canal could not accommodate larger boats. Also, no one had accounted for changes in water level due to tides, so it tended to either overflow or run dry. Not to mention the problem of animals and people always falling into it, residents using it as an ad hoc garbage dump, and the growing popularity of trains as a means of transport. By 1855, the doomed canal was out of business and eventually paved over to create B Street (now Constitution Ave).

That meant the Lockkeeper's House was out of business as well. Squatters moved in and stayed for quite some time. Over the years, the building has been repurposed as a jail cell, a "comfort station," and a storage facility.

Today, there are big plans for this historic little residence. It will be moved a safe distance away from the busy intersection where it now stands. The entire house will be rehabbed, and the inside will become an educational exhibit space.

Cover photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

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