Local History: The “Mother Stewart” Mystery

A 1913 obituary from the Evening Star was recently brought to my attention by a local history buff.* The obituary was for Mrs. Esther Stewart, also known as “Mother Stewart,” who died at her home at Lock 13 at the age of eighty-three. The newspaper clipping is an introduction to one the C&O Canal’s many characters. Mrs. Stewart worked as a lock tender, an innkeeper, and even had a brush with the law for selling alcohol.

According to the Evening Star newspaper, “Mother Stewart” lived between Cabin John and Great Falls for more than 60 years, where she was well known to neighbors and boatmen alike along the C&O Canal. During the Civil War, Mrs. Stewart kept the Great Falls Hotel, where both Union and Confederate armies enjoyed her hospitality. (The Great Falls Hotel or Tavern, now the C&O Canal National Historical Park Visitor Center, had operated as an inn and restaurant for many years beginning in 1830). 

At some point Mrs. Stewart moved to lock 13, where she worked as both a merchant and lock tender. She is buried at the Potomac United Methodist Church, her large yet modestly decorated headstone towards the back of the chapel.

Born in Pennsylvania on January 1, 1831, Mrs. Esther Stewart (also Stuart, Steward) was listed in several censuses, although some entries contradict her obituary. She was widowed by the age of 48, and lived with a son named Charles. 

The 1910 census refers to a nephew named Charles Stewart in her household; the obituary notes that her only surviving relatives were a brother in Pennsylvania and a nephew named Charles Zeigler, who had lived with her. However, the administrator of her estate was Charles S. Stewart; he placed a notice to creditors in a 1914 newspaper. He was listed as her son in both the 1880 and 1900 census. The 1910 census notes Mrs. Stewart’s occupation as “Lock Tender,” and Charles Stewart as a “Canal Laborer.” The 1920 census logs his occupation as lock tender at Lock 9. The National Park Service roster, while their records are incomplete, lists Charles S. Stewart as lock tender at locks 10 and/or 11 from 1888-1939, with no mention of Esther Stewart. 

Construction of the C&O Canal began in 1828 as a transport route for coal from Western Maryland to Georgetown. The 184.5 mile long canal had 74 lift locks to manage the 605 foot elevation between Cumberland and D.C. The locks were simple, hand-operated gates based on Leonardo da Vinci’s original 1485 design. Lock keepers not only opened gates for passing boat traffic but also offered provisions for boatmen and mules. Women and children were integral to canal life, working as unpaid laborers and helping with lock duties. They tended gardens and flocks of chickens and other animals, for both their own families and to sell. Some lock keepers also sold “intoxicating beverages,” which was prohibited. 

Lock tenders were usually married men, as they were considered far more reliable than single ones. The few women who assumed the role of lock tender did so after their husbands died or were drafted into the Civil War. The role was a physically demanding one, and keepers had to be on call from “dawn to dawn” to operate the gates for boats passing through the lock. The Seven Locks area boasted several women lock tenders, who had taken on the role following the death of their husbands. However, records suggest that Mrs. Stewart began her work along the canal as a widow. 

So where did the name “Mother Stewart” come from? Could this nickname have derived from Mrs. Stewart’s hospitable nature and lengthy presence along the canal? Or could the Mother Stewart moniker be a tongue in cheek nod to another newsworthy Mother Stewart, Eliza Daniel Stewart, who had been an early temperance movement leader in the 1870s?

Perhaps so, for in the July 30,1886 Montgomery County Sentinel, the town of Rockville was “the scene of considerable excitement” when a number of parties charged with “violation of the local option law by selling intoxicating liquors in Potomac district” appeared in court. Those charged included the Cabin John postmaster Michael McQuade, Mrs. Rosa Bobinger of the Cabin John Hotel, and Mrs. Esther Stewart. According to reports, “the crowd became so great that it was necessary to have the proceedings in the Court House.” Witnesses testified that they had purchased whiskey from Mrs. Stewart, and she was held to bail for $200.

Mrs. Stewart later had another brush with the court, this time as a victim. In 1911, a local Cabin John resident was convicted of the “larceny of a large number of chickens and ducks from Mrs. Esther Stewart.”

The incomplete story of Mother Stewart and her brief historic role as a woman lock tender remains an intriguing mystery. Following her death on June 27, 1913, the census indicates Charles assumed the role of lock tender and lived at Lock 9 (though NPS records indicate he was a lock keeper long before then). Floods and competition from the railroad had a huge impact on the canal, and operations ceased in 1924. Charles remained at Lock 9 until at least 1930. 

* With thanks to Mr. William Bauman, a C&O Canal Association volunteer.

By Rachel Donnan

Contributing Writer

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