In the mid-1800s, canals crossed Washington and ran alongside the Mall, carrying boats filled with cargo and people between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. A lockkeeper and his family of 13 children lived in the small stone house at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street between 1835 and 1855. He collected tolls and operated the lock of the Washington City Canal. Nationwide, canal traffic declined by the 1850s with the rise of railroads. In 1855, the lockkeeper was no longer needed and the canal became neglected and polluted. The city filled in the canal 1872.
Why is there a lockkeeper's house on the Mall?
Decades before the lockkeeper's house was built, George Washington and city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant proposed constructing the Washington City Canal in the 1790s. They intended the canal to help develop local markets and turn Washington into a thriving commercial center. Lottery tickets like this one were sold to raise money for the canal. The total collected from the lotteries was not enough for construction and finally in 1809, Congress authorized $100,000 to build the canal. The canal formally opened in 1815.
The Washington City Canal flowed from the Anacostia River towards the Capitol, crossing the Mall to join Tiber Creek, an inland extension of the Potomac River. It entered the Potomac just south of the White House. Barges travelling on the canal brought firewood and coal for fuel, food supplies, and marble and stone for public buildings. The Canal was too shallow for large boats. Its banks frequently overflowed into surrounding streets and onto the National Mall. Residents complained, and the mud and dirt in the heart of the national capital shocked visitors to the city.
By 1833, an extension connected the Washington City Canal to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In 1835, the lockkeeper living in the newly-constructed house on the corner of present-day 17th Street and Constitution Avenues managed traffic at the connections of these canals and maintained canal records. The lockkeeper raised and lowered the canal lock to control the flow of water for passage of boats and their cargo.
The canal was notoriously unsanitary and smelly, filled with sewage and garbage that overflowed the banks. Accidents constantly occurred nearby and people and livestock fell in the canal. In 1839, a large city taxi drawn by four horses plunged off a wooden bridge into the canal killing 1 and injuring 4 of its passengers. The city's canals never fulfilled the founders' dreams to connect Washington to growing national trade networks. The construction and maintenance costs were too high for the under-funded city and overly-indebted Congress.
After decades of financial problems, conflicts among stakeholders, floods, sanitary problems, and competition from railroads, the canal closed to barge traffic in the 1850s. The lockkeeper's house was abandoned in 1855, and squatters lived in it for many years. For a short time, the Park Police kept prisoners in the house. After nearly 20 years without barge service on a very dirty waterway, the city filled the canal to make way for the new Constitution Avenue. The Lockkeeper's House remained as a visible remembrance of the city's early commercial dreams.