C&O CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The Great Falls Tavern
The Great Falls Tavern stands today as a significant reminder of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal's operations. If its windows were eyes and its open door a voice, what would the old building tell us of its existence? It has watched the Potomac River flow by its front door. It saw the river provide water for the new canal inching westward and then watched canal boats pass to and from markets in Georgetown. The Tavern has seen the Potomac overflow its banks, lapping at the front door, then rising to the second floor. Did it see other, less substantial lockhouses swept downstream in torrents of rushing water?
In 1853 the Tavern watched as construction of the Washington Aqueduct interrupted daily business in the name of progress. Did the building tremble in 1861 when shots of assault were hurled from the Virginia shoreline? That once friendly shoreline was suddenly an enemy. Did it breathe a sigh of relief when the Union Army stationed troops in the hills above to protect the land on which it stood? Proudly the Tavern observed canal life flourish in the 1870's. Sadly it assessed the destruction of the fatal flood of 1889 which precipitated the canal's decline. In 1924, after 96 years, did it mourn as the last canal boats passed by? The Great Falls Tavern and its constant companion, the Potomac River, have watched history unfold together for over 165 years.
In 1828 the Tavern began as a simple stone Locktender's house, numbered 12 on the C&O Canal. The design for all early lockhouses included a kitchen and parlor downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. This cozy dwelling greeted its first residents, the engineers supervising construction of the canal's first segment. Later the first Locktender, W.W. Fenlon, moved in to operate Lock 20. How proudly his modest home must have stood as it observed the westward progress of the Great National Project.
Activity at Great Falls on the Potomac reached a feverish pitch overnight. Locktender Fenlon could not accommodate all of the workers and visitors to the canal's construction site. By 1830 he convinced the Board of Directors of the Canal Company to expand the original house and allow him to operate an inn. The two-story northern and southern wings were added by 1831. By September 1832 the completed building had a center porchway and shutters. The brick construction was plastered white and etched to look like the stone of the original section. The simple Lockkeeper's house had been transformed into a distinctive hotel, with a high front facade, double chimneys and a welcoming doorway. It was named the Crommelin House in honor of a Dutch family instrumental in securing Dutch loans for the canal company.
As the decades passed the Great Falls Tavern blossomed as a popular destination for city residents. Some visitors were curious about the canal's operation. Others wanted a gulp of fresh country air. All loved an excursion to the spectacular falls of the Potomac River. At night the Tavern came alive with music and laughter. Patrons enjoyed a tasty home cooked meal, dancing in the ballroom of the large northern wing and the fine hospitality of Lockkeeper and Innkeeper Fenlon.
For 25 cents overnight guests could reserve a bunk in the ladies' or the men's quarters on the second floor. Late-comers often slept on the floor or crawled into bed with someone else. The third floor attic served as "the honeymoon suite" and privacy could be secured for those with 50 cents and a marriage certificate. Eventually the lockkeeper's quarters were moved to the southern wing as guests came from all around to the inn at Great Falls.
Completion of the C&O Canal to Cumberland, Maryland in 1850 brought increased boat traffic. Coal from western Maryland became the primary cargo. The Great Falls Tavern and Lock 20 bustled with commotion. But in 1853 a different kind of turmoil shook the walls of the Tavern. The building sustained structural damage as ground was broken for the Washington Aqueduct public water system. Forced to welcome this newcomer to the land it shared with the Potomac River and the canal, the Tavern's front yard again became an upheaval of construction. Within feet of the Tavern's doorway, an intake system, a guardhouse, and a huge conduit were built to bring public water to the nation's capital.
The outbreak of the Civil War again impacted the serenity of the Great Falls Tavern. In 1861 attacks by Confederate forces in Virginia bombarded the Maryland shoreline, the Tavern and surrounding hills with artillery fire. Within hours the Union Army placed troops on the high ground above the Tavern to retaliate. Fortunately for the soldiers and the Tavern the skirmishes were short lived and caused no loss of life. Through the end of the war the Great Falls Tavern and the Washington Aqueduct were never again left unprotected.
A decade of prosperity for both the C&O Canal and the Tavern followed the Civil War. Over 600 boats a year carrying coal, lumber, grains, and other raw materials passed the building on their way to the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria. In 1876 increased traffic demanded that a separate kitchen be built behind the Tavern. Fences, walkways and porches were altered many times. Various other buildings, numerous houses, a carpenter shop, and a saloon joined the Great Falls Tavern to form the community of Great Falls.
This era of success and affluence for the C&O Canal ended abruptly in 1889. A wall of water from heavy spring rains came crashing down the Potomac River and submerged much of the canal. Flood waters lapped at the second floor of the Great Falls Tavern. When the waters receded, the 60 year old building surveyed the devastation. Whole sections of the canal and its towpath were swallowed by the river. Canal boats, lockhouses, and many masonry structures were smashed or washed away. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal lay in total ruin, and its board of directors prepared for bankruptcy.
On the eve of foreclosure the Great National Project was rescued by its competitor, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The railroad agreed to repair the flood-damaged canal in return for taking over its operation in 1891. Although the C&O Canal and the Great Falls Tavern persevered to conduct business for the next three decades, the glorious days before the flood were history. The railroad, only interested in keeping the canal's land from acquisition by a rival, allowed the old waterway to deteriorate year after year. After another damaging flood in 1924 the C&O Canal was closed for business and drained.
In the following decade the Great Falls Tavern continued to serve patrons chicken dinners as of old but had assumed the atmosphere of a refreshment stand on the outside. By 1939 the Tavern, now a Park Service acquisition, was scheduled for renovation as a visitor contact and administration building, but in 1940 an engineer's inspection found the building severely decayed, near collapse, and unsafe for occupancy. For another ten years the fate of the old hotel dangled uncertainly before rehabilitation began.
Today the Great Falls Tavern is operated by the National Park Service as a Visitor Center and Museum. It still stands beside the now restored Lock 20 and watches the Potomac River roll by. Daily, patrons enter the doorway, and its brilliantly lit windows cast their reflection on canal waters once again. Boat rides and special weekend programs have brought back music and laughter. As the subject of thousands of photographs and the centerpiece of drawings and paintings, the Great Falls Tavern accepts its place in history with dignity.