There’s something amazing about stepping outside at night and seeing a pitch-black sky, hearing only the burbling songs of frogs and hooting of owls. It gets better when you can spend the earliest moments of the next morning watching a river flow by, with only sunlight and lush green trees reflected in sparkling water.
I thought you had to drive to the Shenandoah Valley or the Eastern Shore to find something like this, but I found it last week less than five miles from the D.C. line while staying in a 19th-century lockhouse next to the C&O Canal.
Twenty-six original lockhouses remain in the C&O National Historical Park, and the C&O Canal Trust has renovated six of them for overnight stays since 2009. The most rustic have no electricity or indoor plumbing; at Lockhouse 26, north of Great Falls, the closest water pump is three miles away. By contrast, I stayed in Lockhouse 10, near Cabin John, which is outfitted with electricity, running water and — crucially, for Washington summers — air conditioning.
Lockhouse 10 was built in 1830 to house the lockkeeper responsible for allowing boats to pass through the adjacent lock. Despite its age, the quaint two-level house is outfitted in the style of the 1930s to honor the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed skilled workers to revamp and document the canal and its associated structures, including this one. (The walls are decorated with CCC-related pictures and drawings, and scrapbooks offer even more information about life in the lockhouse during the Depression.)
The theme goes beyond antique furniture. The kitchen contains a vintage Westinghouse “Automatic” oven, a three-burner stove and a chunky refrigerator. (I wish my own house had such an attractive tile counter and huge porcelain sink.) Cupboards are filled with blue-and-white dishes and a selection of antique cooking utensils, including a whirling eggbeater and a metal, bucketlike ice crusher. More modern amenities include a toaster oven and French press.
The kitchen door leads to a screened porch that looks onto a small backyard with a picnic table and fire pit.
Bookshelves in the living room hold a stash of 1930s games, including tiddlywinks, jacks, marbles and a set of Lincoln Logs. Maps and wildlife guides are available for those who’d like to do a little birdwatching.
Upstairs are two bedrooms — one with a double bed and a similarly sized trundle, one with three single beds — and a small bathroom that’s dominated by a claw-foot bathtub with a shower.
As tempting as the Lincoln Logs are, however, I didn’t come here to sit indoors. This is a scenic stretch of parkland, with tadpoles, turtles and large fish swimming in stretches of the old canal, shaded by the levels and stones of disused locks. There are beautiful Potomac River views from a number of little trails that snake down to offer access for kayakers.
A short walk away is Lock 8, home to the Potomac Conservancy’s River Center. It is open on Saturday and Sunday and offers exhibits about the area and guided nature walks. For hikers and bikers, the Maryland side of Great Falls flows about five miles to the north. Glen Echo Park (and the Irish Inn at Glen Echo) are a short distance away, but the trip involves crossing several lanes of Clara Barton Parkway traffic, which is difficult on foot.
After a long day of exploring, don’t be surprised if you find yourself rocking gently on the screened porch reading a good book, just as residents would have done in the 1930s and long before.
Where is it? Lockhouse 10 is at mile marker 8.8 of the C&O Canal towpath, near Cabin John.
Getting there: The parking lot for Lockhouse 10 can be accessed only from the southbound Clara Barton Parkway. (The entrance is just after the exit for I-495. Don’t drive into the regular parking lot; keep right to access the long driveway.)
Booking the lockhouse: Lockhouse 10 can hold up to eight people. Reservations can be made up to one year in advance, but weekends tend to fill quickly. From April through October, the lockhouse costs $125 per night Sunday through Thursday and $150 on Friday and Saturday. The price drops $25 in the offseason. A calendar at www.canaltrust.org shows available dates; reservations also can be made by calling 301-745-8888.
What to bring: Beds and olive-drab wool army blankets are provided, but you must bring your own sheets, pillows and towels. The kitchen is stocked with pots, cookware and utensils. The house has no television or radio.