If you’ve been walking on the National Mall or waiting at the intersection of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, you’ve probably glanced at the little stone house on the corner and wondered, “Huh, what is that and why is it here?”
Well, I wondered the same thing, so like Nancy Drew, I set out to solve the mystery (dun dun dun!).
It turns out the inconspicuous little stone house is the oldest building on the National Mall. It was once the home of the Lock Keeper of the Washington City Canal that used to run through the center of The District. Though it's hard to imagine now, at that time, 17th Street was a wharf and Constitution Avenue was the canal. A Lock Keeper named John Hilton lived there with his wife and 13 children, and was paid an annual salary of $50 to operate the canal’s lock, collect fares and help barges navigate the canal locks.
But due to poor government planning (some things never change in DC!), the Canal was an economic failure when barge traffic was less than expected, plus it was a hazard to man and machine. The Canal actually swallowed up vehicles and foot traffic, leading the Washington Evening Star to rename it "The Man Trap" because of the number of persons that walked into it and drowned.
The canal became defunct in the middle of the 19th century, turning into an open sewer and a health hazard, until it was filled in the early 20th century. By 1855 the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal was abandoned, the Lock Keeper moved away and squatters took up residence in his old stone house. Fast forward, and the Lockkeeper’s House was successively reborn as a Park Police jail cell, and later as an NPS bathroom. Public access to the house came to an end in the 1950s and used to store park maintenance equipment.
After being boarded up for over 40 years, it's been rehabilitated and recently reopened to the publica as an educational and visitor center for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, showcasing the history of civics, commerce, development, and ecology on the storied site. Permanent displays will be forthcoming, and park rangers give tours on the history of the building.
So there you have it, the great mystery of the little stone house on the National Mall has been solved.
The house is open to the public Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Look up, down, and all around. Adventures can be found everywhere -- if you're curious enough to look. k for it