Canallers were surprised one morning in the late 1890’s as they exited the somewhat frightening Paw Paw Tunnel only to meet a sight of true horror.
The lock house at lock 64 2/3 just below the east end of the tunnel was a charred mess.
It had burned to the ground during the night.
It was probably just by luck that it hadn’t started a forest fire.
The first canallers on the scene went ashore to search for the lock keeper. He was a friendly man who lived alone in the house and tended the five locks — 61, 62, 63 1/3, 64 2/3 and 66 — at the east end of the tunnel.
Another lock had originally been planned in that group of locks, but financial difficulties forced the C&O Canal Company to drop the plan for lock 65 and renumber the locks around it, which is why two of the locks had fractions in their number.
According to George Hooper Wolfe in his book, “I Drove Mules on the C&O Canal,” the lock keeper “was found in the ruins, dead of burns and crushed skull, evidently murdered.”
Because of the isolation of the area, word of the crime had to be sent back to Paw Paw, which was the nearest town more than a mile away.
From Paw Paw, a telegram could be sent to Cumberland to get the Allegany County sheriff down to the scene.
It all took the better part of a day.
Because of the difficulty required in reaching the lock house, the murderer had to know that something was there that he wanted.
Wolfe wrote that the lock keeper “was a collector of rare and unusual coins and delighted in showing them to Canal boatmen and anyone else interested. Many of the Canal boatmen would pick up coins for him as he was well liked by those who knew him.”
As search of the house’s ruins showed that the coins were missing, but the sheriff was unable to find a clue as to who had committed the murder.
“The incident was just about forgotten and people heard rumors that the affair was probably a local, well-planned inside job,” Wolfe wrote.
However, the canallers were reminded each time they passed through the tunnel locks of the friend whom they had lost.
They also remembered some of the coins in the lock keeper’s collection.
Some they had found for their friend and others were unusual enough to stick in their memories.
Months after the murder, some canallers were in one of Shantytown’s many saloons closing the place down.
A stranger walked in and offered to buy the canallers a drink, which they readily accepted.
When the stranger paid for the drinks, he used a coin that the canallers recognized as one of the missing coins from the lock keeper’s collection.
“The boatmen took the stranger in hand, searched him, and found other coins that had been shown to them by the locktender many times before. The boatmen handled him roughly and would have killed him on the spot had not the barkeeper interfered,” Wolfe wrote.
Police were called to arrest the stranger.
At his trial, canallers testified to which coins had come from the dead lock keeper’s collection and businessmen testified that the stranger had tried to pass other rare coins at their shops.
“On this evidence he was found guilty and hanged, maintaining his innocence, but finally admitting his guilt in the end,” Wolfe wrote.
Even today reaching the locks at the east end of the Paw Paw Tunnel is about a mile walk from the nearest parking.