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Changes at Swains – C&O Canal Trust

Changes at Swains – C&O Canal Trust

The C&O Canal Belief is rehabilitating Swains Lockhouse at Lock 21 to turn into the most recent addition to the Canal Quarters program. Bert Swain, who lived at Lock 21 from 1957-1980, generously shared his household reminiscences and pictures for this submit about modifications to the lockhouse and the household enterprise through the years.

Modifications to Lockhouse 21 and its Outbuildings

The lockhouse was inbuilt 1830 as a one-story dwelling with two-foot thick stone partitions and quaint lattice and horsehair beneath the plaster inside. The downstream half of the home is unique and options irregularly minimize stone, whereas the upstream half, which was added after the 1889 flood, options extra uniform, sq. stones. The Swain household all the time stored the home’s exterior pristine, whitewashed with a mix of lime and water. The home was shaded by giant timber, which died off or have been eliminated through the years, and was surrounded by numerous outbuildings used for Swain household companies that at the moment are lengthy gone.

The bridge over the lock within the late 1940s didn’t have handrails. Photograph © The Swain Household.


Outbuildings have been positioned as excessive as attainable on account of flooding. Photograph © The Swain Household.


A motorcycle storage and canoe workshop stood to the proper of the lockhouse (notice the barge within the canal). Photograph © The Swain Household.

Justice Douglas and the Canal

In 1950, a controversial proposal was made for a scenic freeway to be constructed on and alongside the canal, an concept supported by The Washington Submit. A nature fanatic, U.S. Supreme Courtroom Justice William O. Douglas was a champion of the canal, having spent many a Sunday climbing the towpath, and didn’t need to see its magnificence destroyed. He wrote a letter to the Publish editor, inviting him to hike the whole canal, starting in Cumberland and ending in Washington, D.C. Eight days after the hike, the impressed editors conceded that the canal must be preserved. Nevertheless it wasn’t till 1971 that the world acquired safety as a unit of the Nationwide Park Service, increasing from about 5,000 acres to 20,000. In 1977, in recognition of his advocacy for and relationship with the canal, the C&O Canal Nationwide Historic Park was devoted to Justice Douglas.

Justice Douglas leads a hike on the C&O Canal. Photograph: Nationwide Park Service


The Justice at Swains

Bert’s father, Robert “Bob” Swain, and Justice Douglas have been shut associates as a consequence of his frequent visits to Lock 21. One morning in 1954, Bob got here throughout a mom possum that had been killed by a canine and nonetheless had infants in her pouch.  The household helped save them by feeding them a mix of watered-down milk in a drugs dropper and discovering them foster houses. Justice Douglas was out for a hike on the canal, encountered the orphans beneath the care of the Swain household, and handed the story on to The Washington Publish.

Many locally took an curiosity within the orphaned possums. Photograph © The Swain Household.


The Outhouses

Bob Swain thought-about the outhouse on the lockhouse aspect of the canal the household’s since he put within the work to construct it. Because the canal turned extra common for recreation, guests would use it, too, and it wasn’t all the time out there to relations once they wanted it. A household story goes that, one Saturday morning, a annoyed Bob wanted the outhouse however it was occupied. He banged on the door and yelled, “Get out of my outhouse!” When the door opened, Justice Douglas emerged. Bob defined that the outhouse belonged to him because it was on the household aspect of the canal, not the Nationwide Park Service aspect. Justice Douglas stated he’d look into it.

Come Monday morning, a knock sounded on the door of the lockhouse. Standing there have been two Nationwide Park Service workmen, who stated, “Mr. Swain, we’ve got three outhouses right here for you. The place would you want them?” Indoor plumbing wouldn’t come to Lock 21 till a lot later.

A watercolor of the Swain household outhouse. Photograph © The Swain Household


Bob Swain on the lockhouse step. Photograph © The Swain Household

Swain Household Concession Enterprise

The concession stand helped the household make ends meet because the canal transitioned from a working business waterway to a well-liked recreation vacation spot. They rented boats to guests and bought refreshments and fishing provides. When Bob died in 1967, Bert’s brother “Bubba” and mom Virginia took over the long-term concession lease that allowed them to proceed dwelling in Lockhouse 21 and operating the enterprise.

The concession stand within the early 1950’s was a easy lean-to fashion. Photograph © The Swain Household

Their boat rental enterprise began off with quaint canoes with ribbing and lattice, coated with canvas on the surface—“the actual deal,” in response to Bert. Later, the Swains added pink canoes made by the household. They made a canoe type, laid fiberglass over it, added the ribbing, and closed within the ends. Throughout this era, the youngsters helped thoughts the concession stand however would typically take a break to swim out to the sandbar within the river and would go away a notepad behind for individuals who needed a canoe to put in writing their identify.

Bert’s sister and brother with early canoe leases within the 1950s. Photograph © The Swain Household


One other early model of the concession stand centered round a Coca Cola cooler. Photograph © The Swain Household

Common clients would present up on the daybreak to purchase bait minnows and lease a ship. The household stored 15-20 river boats for lease simply down from the lock, tied with a sequence or cable. The roots of the tree protruding into the water allowed them to stroll right down to get the boats as wanted. At this spot, the river is fairly shallow, round three ft, so the boats have been moved by poling. Based on Bert, again then extra individuals knew tips on how to pole a ship.

Most of the Swain rental boats used a pole for navigation. Photograph © The Swain Household.

Damage by Catfish

Frequent guests to the Canal and patrons of the Swain concession enterprise received to know the household nicely through the years. Even clients that weren’t acquainted to the household might typically show memorable. Bert shared that, on one event, a fisherman went right down to the river with a gaggle of buddies. A couple of hours later, he got here as much as Bert’s brother and stated, “Buddy, are you able to assist me?” The person lifted his foot and there was a catfish hooked up from a fin that had stabbed via his sneaker and into his foot. Apparently they caught the catfish and couldn’t get the hook out, in order that they laid it on the bottom and stomped on it in an effort to take away the hook. The Swains referred to as the rescue squad, who picked the person up for remedy.

The canal was a well-liked fishing spot. Photograph © The Swain Household.

The Miraculous Contact

Within the early and mid 1960s, the Swain concession enterprise and stand grew. Round 1963, a customer misplaced his contact lens within the gravel in entrance of the stand on a Friday at noon. He and the Swains looked for all of it afternoon, however couldn’t find it. Saturday was beautiful, and hundreds of individuals lined up on the stand over the course of the day to lease boats and make purchases. Each Saturday and Sunday handed with out the lens being situated. Since early variations of contacts have been uncommon and costly, the person actually needed and wanted to seek out it. He returned on Monday morning to look once more and was shocked and delighted to seek out the lacking contact, nonetheless utterly intact, on the bottom in entrance of the stand the place so many ft had trod over the weekend.

The early to mid 1960s concession stand stood alone and had a prime that would open up. Photograph © The Swain Household.

They constructed a brand new stand in 1969 which survived Hurricane Agnes and stood till 2007. Photograph © The Swain Household.

John Quincy Adams

Along with caring for the lockhouse, operating the concession, and performing some mild farming, the Swain household was all the time in search of methods to reinforce their revenue. In 1974, the Nationwide Park Service needed a sunken tour barge faraway from Lock 21. The Swains gained the bid to take away the boat and dismantled it over Thanksgiving weekend with loads of arduous work and all arms on deck. In the present day’s Park Service officers couldn’t work out what had occurred to this barge and have been thrilled to listen to Bert’s story, which solved a years-long thriller for them.

After plugging up a gap, the household started taking the barge aside (prime) after which towed it out of the Canal (backside) to be minimize up and hauled away. Photograph © The Swain Household.

Reminiscences Gone and Reminiscences Stay

As we speak, Lockhouse 21 is being rehabilitated right into a Canal Quarters area that might be open to visitors for in a single day stays. Although the concession stand is lengthy gone, the concrete pad it stood upon continues to be there. Different items of Swain household historical past stay too, just like the flood markers on the home exterior and long-ago planted flowers that also bloom.

Bert’s father Bob and sister in entrance of the lock. The flowers nonetheless come up yearly. Photograph © The Swain Household.

You’ll be able to study extra concerning the Swains Lockhouse venture right here, and skim two extra weblog posts by Bert Swain: Preventing Floods at Swains and Defending the Previous.

NOTE: The photographs on this publish are property of the Swain household and is probably not used or reproduced with out permission.


Visitor blogger Christine Rai is a university professor within the Washington, D.C. space with a ardour for tradition, meals research, and experiential studying. She blogs about meals, journey, and educating at

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