With an eye to the resources of the West, President John Quincy Adams broke ground near Georgetown for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in 1828. It took two years for the once-called “Grand Old Ditch” to reach Cabin John in 1830. That was the year a house for the first lockkeeper at Lock 8 was ready for occupancy.
The C&O Canal Company had received a proposal from James O’Brien for erecting houses “Numbers 5 and 6” at a cost of $765 each. Number 6 was to be the house at Lock 8, today called Lockhouse 8 to avoid confusion. It took a year to complete. The stone walls of the structure are nearly two feet thick, providing insulation against cold in winter and keeping the house cool in summer.
Solomon Drew was the first lockkeeper to live in the house. He was given use of the house for his family, an acre of the surrounding land for a garden and livestock, and paid $100 a year, later increased to $150. He could fish in the river and supplement his income by selling produce and bread to boatmen and passengers coming through Lock 8.
Lockkeepers were on duty 24/7 to help canal boatmen lock through. Cabin John residents could hear when a boat approached Lock 8. The boat captain would yell “Hey-y-y-y-y-y Lock!” and also blow his boat horn to make sure the lockkeeper would hear the call and wake up at night. Neighbors sometimes complained but got used to the sound.
Along the 184.5 miles of the canal are 74 locks. These locks help boats overcome the 605-foot elevation change between Georgetown and Cumberland. Each lock raises or lowers the level of water about eight feet so that canal boats can travel smoothly along in either direction.
The locks typically have gates that lockkeepers pulled open with strong arms and sometimes with family help. But Locks 8 through 14, known as the Seven Locks, presented a different challenge. The Seven Locks raise the canal a total of 56 feet over a 1.25-mile stretch. To help speed the passage of canal boats, the Canal Company experimented with mechanical drop gates at Locks 9 and 10, operated by turning a wheel. However, little difference in speed occurred, and, as a result, the mechanical design was used only a few times along the rest of the canal.
The 18- by 30-foot stone lockhouse at Lock 8 remained standing, despite major flooding of the Potomac River that ultimately ended canal operations in 1924. A flood in 1936 reached the second story of the lockhouse, according to eyewitness accounts and destroyed Lock 8. A unit of African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, took on the task of repairing the damage to the Seven Locks.
Descendants of the last lockkeeper at Lock 8, Samuel Spong, continued to live in the house after canal operations closed. His daughter and family later moved to a house in Cabin John atop the hill behind the lockhouse. By the late 1950s, the lockhouse was abandoned, and it became a dilapidated reminder of a bygone era.
In 1971, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal became a National Historical Park. Restoration of the towpath, canal and hundreds of structures continued as the national park developed. The restoration of Lockhouse 8 took three years and resulted in a new roof, new flooring, repaired stonework, and a new porch. Hundreds of volunteers, skilled craftsmen, donors and nonprofit organizations were involved in the effort with the National Park Service. Even a new native tree, planted by volunteers, rose in the same spot to replace the one that had died. In 2005, the lockhouse at Lock 8 came back to life.
Lockhouse 8 remains in a floodplain. Floods that can cause devastation also result in extraordinary biological diversity. Floodplain forest habitat, down a few steps from Lock 8, contains rich soils from which rare species of plants and spring wildflowers bloom. Near the river, within sight of Minnie’s Island, a variety of birds settle among the trees, seabirds fish in the river, and deer, beaver and other wildlife appear.
Today, restoration continues with care of the towpath and land around Lockhouse 8. Stewardship is the priority of new volunteers and non-profit organizations cooperating with the National Park Service. The Minnie’s Island Community Conservancy is now the steward of Lock 8, in collaboration with the C&O Canal Trust. To carry out its responsibilities, MICC will bring volunteers to help maintain and preserve a section of the Seven Locks of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Stewardship aligns with MICC’s mission, not only for Minnie’s Island but also for Lock 8 and nearby areas. MICC seeks to create opportunities for nature conservancy, recreation, education, and social engagement.
The C&O Canal is one of the most visited national parks in our country. Millions of visitors come each year and many thousands of them walk, jog or bike the towpath past Lock 8. With the hands-on activity of volunteers, the grounds and towpath of Lock 8 will continue to be a special place. For information or to volunteer, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.