C& O River Center Surges Back to Life
Lockhouse 8 Reopened for Education

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.

"Nobody had anything," Denell said, "and they were all in the same boat."

The canal itself was a quieter marvel than the railroads that replaced it, with its system of locks, culverts, aqueducts and waste weirs. It was an engine driven by water, lifting and lowering.

In those days, it was a week's trip from the western end of the canal in Cumberland down to Washington. Today, the waters are still and light-dappled; the towpath, sandy and quiet.

"It's a stunningly wonderful place," said Tom Black, leader of Cabin John-based Cub Scout Pack 1320, a group of boys who spend hours hiking, camping and canoeing along the canal.

With the opening of the river center, Black is getting involved in designing a merit badge that scouts will earn on visits to Lockhouse 8 to study the canal and the river.

"It's got such a rich human history," said Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan.

He hopes the river center will help people better understand their place not only in this historic community, but also in the ecosystem.

"The Washington, D.C., region gets 80 percent of its drinking water from the Potomac River," Logan said. And the human body is about 60 percent water, he added.

"In a very literal sense, we are all part of the Potomac River," he said. "And the Potomac River is part of us."

The Lockhouse 8 River Center, at Lock 8 on the C&O Canal, off eastbound Clara Barton Parkway in Cabin John, will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends through Sept. 18.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company