C& O River Center Surges Back to Life

Cody Anderson, 9, right, shovels and Charlie Black, 10, tamps down dirt as members of Cub Scout Pack 1320 plant a shrub at Lockhouse 8 in Cabin John.
Cody Anderson, 9, right, shovels and Charlie Black, 10, tamps down dirt as members of Cub Scout Pack 1320 plant a shrub at Lockhouse 8 in Cabin John. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Cub Scouts planted a bush; tots fed carrots to a patient old mule.

And Tommy Denell, 83, the grandson of the lock keeper at a house just like this one, Lockhouse 8 in Cabin John, chased threads of memory back to the vanished life on the C&O Canal.

The boat captains would call: "Hey, lockie!" Denell said. Then the lock keepers would go to work. "They'd open the lock," he added with a faraway smile.

In the years after the canal's closing in 1924, the lock keepers moved on, and Lockhouse 8 lost its reason for being.

But that changed yesterday. Denell, the scouts, the mule, assorted dignitaries, National Park Service officials, neighbors and many Potomac Conservancy volunteers gathered to cut a ribbon and celebrate the rebirth of Lockhouse 8 as a river center, a place of environmental, cultural and historical education.

"It's exciting to see it come back," said Kevin Brandt, C&O Canal National Historical Park superintendent. Lockhouse 8's revival was accomplished through a partnership between the Park Service and the Silver Spring-based conservancy. Hundreds of volunteers helped renovate the old stone house with an eye to historical accuracy.

Officials hope the river center will make that history more accessible to the canal's estimated 250,000 annual visitors, who walk, jog and bike past the lockhouse.

"I've worked in a lot of different parks, including Yellowstone," Brandt said. "But the kind of stories you can tell on the C&O Canal are second to none."

Built in 1830, just two years after the 184.5-mile C&O Canal opened, Lockhouse 8 served as the home of a lock keeper and his family, whose lives focused on the opening and closing of the locks to allow canal boats to pass.

From his shirt pocket yesterday, Denell drew a photograph of his forebears, posing in the amber sunlight of a day in 1898, just downstream in front of their home, Lockhouse 7.

There were his grandmother, Claretta Mae, dressed in a Victorian high-collared dress, and his grandfather, lock keeper William Thomas Denell, wearing tall boots, and holding their baby son, William Theodore -- Denell's father.

The families lived hard and simple lives, in tune with the flow of the water, just like the canal-boat families who lived on their boats, which were weighted down with coal.


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