The idea to make the C&O Canal’s Lockhouse 8 into a public interpretative center came grew out of Potomac Conservancy members’ trips to another preserved treasure — Minnie’s Island in the Potomac, just across from the lockhouse.
“The Potomac Conservancy owns Minnie’s island as a nature preserve. We actually have to come through the park to get there. We kept passing this Lockhouse,” said Judy Welles, director of a Conservancy project to restore the 175-year-old lockhouse as a educational facility. “We’d bring our canoes down here and we would go across to Minnie’s and we said, well first of all it would be great to turn this into a river center.”
The project started in 2003 when the Conservancy asked to the National Park Service to lease them the land in exchange for leading the restoration, which has been conducted mostly by volunteers.
The three-year effort is now drawing to a close. Volunteers put the finishing touches on the interior paint Saturday as the Conservancy prepares for the Lockhouse 8 River Center’s grand opening May 14.
THE INTERIOR of the river center will feature educational displays and hands-on exhibits concerning both the history of the lockhouse and the C&O Canal and the ecology of the Potomac River. The displays will be spread throughout the two rooms on each of the building’s two stories.
The restoration retains the original floors and stone walls of the structure and will feature vintage furniture and historic photographs of the lock, all part of an effort to preserve its historic feel.
The Conservancy has already lined up more than 20 volunteers to staff the center, which will initially be open on Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
“We think this will be a very special place for people to come and learn about the river and learn about the history of this wonderful area,” Welles said.
In addition to the educational exhibits, the lockhouse will be a locus for two ongoing Potomac Conservancy programs. Second Saturdays is a free monthly nature program that includes activities such as bird walks, wildflower identification and other ecology activities. Voices of the River, held on occasional Sundays, takes more cultural and historical approach, with discussions of the history of the canal and its people.
“It’s a way for people to be actively engaged” in the life of the river and canal, said Jen Schill, communications and membership manager for the Conservancy, which conducts both programs.
Welles said that the main room would also host the work of local photographers and artists, making it “not just a historical center, not just a nature center, but a cultural center too.”
The lockhouse dates back to 1830, when it was first manned by a lockkeeper, who received $100 a year and one acre of land in exchange for being on hand around the clock to operate the lock.
It was abandoned around 1950 and had seriously deteriorated when the Conservancy started restoring it in cooperation with the Park Service in 2003.
“It was totally dilapidated. There have been termites. … The wood was rotting,” and the mud basement had been flooded many times, Welles said. The restoration has drawn in skilled laborers—both hired and volunteer contractors—for major tasks like shoring up the original floors and installing drywall and carpentry. Conservancy members and area residents have helped with many other tasks.
Volunteers Saturday said that working on the lockhouse restoration is a way to look after a valued local resource — the canal and river area — and to do work that has visible results.
“It’s one of the local places where you can actually do something, as opposed to some of the other environmental groups where all you can do is send money and get pamphlets,” said Trish Nowoslawski, a consultant who recently moved to the area from Dallas. “It’s just amazing. A place like Dallas you don’t really see a whole lot of people running around outside or on bikes, or walking dogs or stuff like that. You just come to river and it’s like, everybody’s here. … It’s one of my favorite parts of living in D.C.”
Volunteer George Wyeth, a Cabin John resident, agreed. “The canal is just such a huge asset to the area,” he said. “It’s really nice to have a project you work on you see some kind of tangible immediate results right here in your own back yard.”
Welles said she had been impressed with the dedication of the volunteers — young and old, Conservancy members and non-members — who have contributed over 1,000 hours to the restoration.
“This seems to be an organization that volunteers do love to be with. There’s a lot of love going for this lockhouse — the idea of bringing something back from the past, treating it well, and turning it into something that can help the present and the future,” Welles said.