The four lockmaster houses at the former Lock and Dam 51 in Golconda, Ill., are 90 years old but getting a new life as short-term rentals on the website Airbnb.com. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
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Old Lockmaster Homes Available For Vacation Rentals

Ninety years after being built as homes for the men who maintained Ohio River Lock and Dam 51, four houses have a new purpose.

The four lockmaster houses in Golconda, Ill., may be rented overnight on the website Airbnb.com.

A website (www.golcondalockmasterhomes.com) and a flyer both advertising the two three-bedroom and two single-bedroom homes ask, “Looking for a great vacation get-away? The perfect place to celebrate that special occasion? Maybe you just need to escape the ‘rat race’ for a few days and relax where the world seems to turn a little slower. Whatever your motive, you can find the solution at the restored Lockmaster Homes in Golconda, Ill., site of the former Lock and Dam 51.”

The brick and masonry pump house is the only one of its kind remaining on the Ohio River. It is an exact replica of the U.S. Corps of Engineers logo and features an engraving of the Corps motto “Essayons,” meaning “Let Us Try,” in Latin.
The brick and masonry pump house is the only one of its kind remaining on the Ohio River. It is an exact replica of the U.S. Corps of Engineers logo and features an engraving of the Corps motto “Essayons,” meaning “Let Us Try,” in Latin.

The homes were first occupied in 1928–29 as housing for the lockmasters who maintained the timber wicket dam as well as their families. They remained in use until the lock and dam facility was replaced in the early 1980s with the construction of the new Smithland Locks and Dam. With the creation of the Smithland Pool, Dam 51 was no longer needed.

For nearly two decades, the houses sat empty. Then, in 1998, the General Services Administration transferred the title of the houses to the city of Golconda with the stipulation that they be restored to their original design. The process took years. In an effort to preserve them, the city and Main Street Golconda Inc. entered into an agreement to renovate them for use as overnight lodging, using grant funding to complete the work. Following completion of construction in 2002, the property was leased to Dam 51 LLC, the nonprofit, volunteer organization that maintains the homes and offers them to the public. More recently, with the advent of more short-term rentals becoming available online, the homes were also listed on the Airbnb site, said Jessica Wagner, a Dam 51 LLC board member.

In addition to travelers looking to relax on the screened porches and enjoy the unobstructed views of the Ohio River and the passing towboat traffic, “We’ve had family reunions,” Wagner said. “We’ve had class reunions come and book all four houses.” When the town has its annual festivals, she said, the homes may be rented out as much as a year in advance.

Each of the four lockmaster houses is decorated in early 20th century antiques. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
Each of the four lockmaster houses is decorated in early 20th century antiques. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

The houses on the former lock and dam property lie along what has been named the Ohio River Route National Scenic Byway in the Ohio River Route Heritage Corridor. Both downtown Golconda and the former Lock & Dam 51 site are on the National Register of Historic Places. The homes have been furnished with period-specific antiques whenever possible, Wagner said. Each year one of the homes is also decorated and featured on the city’s Christmas tour of historic homes.

Those who spend the night aren’t those looking for fancy or high-tech accommodations, Wagner said. The houses don’t have flatscreen televisions, internet access or even cable television. What they offer, she said, is an unparalleled view of the river and easy access to both historic Golconda and outdoor enjoyment via fishing tournaments taking place in Smithland Pool as well as hiking and horseback riding in the surrounding Shawnee National Forest. Wagner said Dam 51 LLC is also discussing updating some of the amenities and would like to seek out additional grant funding to do so.

Visitors to the homes travel down Golconda’s Main Street and then high atop the earthen levee, passing by the Dam 51 pump house, the castle-like brick and masonry tower that is the only one of its kind remaining on the Ohio River. An exact replica of the Corps of Engineers logo, it was once used as a watchtower, where the passing of vessels was recorded in a log, said Cheryl Cossey, secretary of the Pope County Historical Society. It is engraved with the Corps motto, “Essayons,” meaning “Let Us Try.” On the steps leading down to the river, you can still see the gauge marks for measuring its height.

The bedroom in Lockmaster House 4. The houses can be booked through Airbnb.com. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
The bedroom in Lockmaster House 4. The houses can be booked through Airbnb.com. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

Cossey grew up three houses down from Lock and Dam 51.

“Both of my grandfathers worked on the dam when they were constructing it,” she said.

She knew many of the families who lived in the houses over the years, so she indicated it was difficult for her to see them sitting empty so long with boards covering their windows. Now, Cossey, Wagner and the others involved with preserving the lockmaster houses hope their listing on Airbnb.com will help breathe new life into the historic homes.

For more information, contact Dam 51 LLC by phone at 618-683-6702 or 618-683-6246, email golcondalockdam51@gmail.com or visit golcondalockmasterhomes.com.

Caption for top photo: The four lockmaster houses at the former Lock and Dam 51 in Golconda, Ill., are 90 years old but getting a new life as short-term rentals on the website Airbnb.com. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

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