Dismal Swamp Canal
The Dismal Swamp Canal
Beez Neez going along the Great Dismal Swamp
The Dismal Swamp Canal (DSC) and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (ACC) form alternative routes along the Atlantic Intra-Coastal Waterway between the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. The canals and the rest of the waterway are maintained and cared for by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The ICW provides pleasure boaters and commercial shippers with a protected inland channel between Norfolk VA and Miami, Florida. The history of these two canals which contain the only locks along the ICW, paints a vivid picture of the development of transportation that goes back more than two hundred years. It is also a fascinating tale rich in folklore and literature.
Born of the muck and matter of the Dismal Swamp, those who read DC Comics know the dreaded Swamp Thing as a plant elemental and force of nature protecting his domain by an affiliation with The Parliament of Trees. But to the few that probe even deeper, he is also the retainer of memories and psyche of Dr. Alec Holland, a biochemist who died long ago in the swamplands. For many years, it was believed the Swamp Thing actually was Holland; he first appeared as Alex Olsen in House of Secrets number 92 (July 1971), escaping a bomb-explosion with deadly injuries that knocked him unconscious. When he awoke, his body had mutated, fusing and healing with the heart of the swamp, becoming a green monstrosity. It was only in the last 10 or so years that we found out the truth, that somehow the plant had absorbed everything, thinking it was once the man. But then what we thought we knew changed again in the DC Comic event Brightest Day, where Swamp Thing became corrupted by a deathly forced called Nekron. During that epic storyline, Alec Holland was finally raised from his grave to bond with a new creature championing the white light. Becoming the true Swamp Thing, he battled the evil version and reassumed the mantle as a swamp creature housing the soul of an innocent man.
More than two hundred years ago, as it is today, transportation was the life-blood of the North Carolina sounds region and the Tidewater region of Virginia. The landlocked sounds were entirely dependent on poor overland tracks or shipment along the treacherous Carolina coast to reach further markets through Norfolk.
The first to propose the “advantage of making a channel to transport by water – carriage goods from the Albemarle Sound into the Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers” was Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia in 1728. He had just returned from making a survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border for the English Crown. During the expedition, he and his party had to struggle through dense undergrowth and forests of the great swamp. Byrd, finding the place repulsive, is said to be responsible for the addition of “Dismal” to the name.
The Dismal Swamp Canal: It would be nearly sixty years, following the Revolutionary War, before a canal was started. The new nation desperately needed new roads, connecting the isolated towns and villages with larger cities. If the country was to grow and prosper, an effective means of internal transportation had to be developed. Both George Washington and Patrick Henry felt that canals were the easiest answer and favoured a route through the Dismal Swamp. Although Washington was not involved in the canal’s construction, he was familiar with the region. He and a group of business “adventurers” owned some fifty thousand acres in the Dismal Swamp that they were logging. Washington Ditch, a separate cut through the swamp was built to transport their timber. The remnants of it are still visible today.
Finally, in 1793, construction began on both ends of the Dismal Swamp Canal. The canal had to be dug completely by hand so progress was slow and expensive. Most of the labour was done by slaves hired from nearby landowners. It is interesting to note that the slaves became so familiar with the swamp during this period that it eventually became a haven for runaways. Later, in the anti-slavery era prior to the Civil War, “Harper’s Weekly” artist David Strother visited the area and reported that there were large colonies of runaway slaves in some sections of the swamp. Harriet Beecher Stowe patterned her main character in the novel “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” one of Strother’s sketches. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to pen his poem, “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp,” based on Stowe’s character.
By 1796, the costs of building the canal had far exceeded the projected estimates. The company halted work and began a road to connect the two canal sections. The road was completed in 1802. The famous Irish poet, Sir Thomas Moore, visited the area soon after and immortalised “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp” in a ballad about a legendary love affair.
The completed canal would eventually open in 1805, twelve years after it was started. Because it was so shallow, its use was limited to flat boats and log rafts that were manually poled or towed through. Shipments consisted mainly of logs, shingles and other wood products taken from the swamps great stands of cedar and juniper. Needless to say, this was a far cry from what farmers, lumbermen and merchants originally envisioned as a regional trade route. Throughout its history, the Dismal Swamp Canal has experienced hard times.
The owners would give up trying to maintain it, let it fall into disrepair and eventually sell it. The maintenance problems were the results of floors in the canals original concept and design. Water levels between its beginning in Deep Creek and its original end in Joyce’s Creek were not correctly measured. This left the canal without an adequate source of water and subject to natural rainfall and drainage conditions. Even with the feeder ditch built to supply water from Lake Drummond, the canal was still dry in periods of low rainfall and drought. The problem remains even today. To preserve water levels in the Federally protected Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the feeder ditch is periodically shut off during dry spells. This prevents the canal from draining waters of the swamp and damaging its fragile eco-system.
Rich in History: The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating artificial in the US. It is also rich in history and folklore. Visitors and canal navigators travel where famous explorers and presidents have stood and literary greats have been inspired for over two hundred years. For example, astride the two states’ border is the sight where the infamous “Halfway House” hotel was built in the late 1820’s. The hotel was a popular spot for marriages, duels and those escaping the law. Since the hotel was on the state line, this last group simply walked to the other side of the hotel to avoid being captured in either state. It is also said that Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven” during one of his stays at the hotel.
1728 - Colonel William Byrd first proposes a canal
1787 - Virginia authorises canal construction
1790 - North Carolina authorises canal construction
1793 - The Dismal Swamp Canal Company begins digging
1804 - The causeway road opens, eventually becoming the US 17
1805 - The full length of the canal opens
1812 - The Feeder Ditch supplying water is cut. Number of locks is expanded from two to five or six.
1814 - A twenty ton decked vessel passes for the first time
1818 - President James Munroe visits
1820 - Canal built connecting Dismal Swamp to Northwest River and Currituck Sound. Some remnants still exist.
1827 - Two years work to widen and deepen the canal.
1829 - Locks converted from wood to stone. President Andrew Jackson visits. Lake Drummond Hotel, “The Halfway House” opens.
1843 - Gilmerton Canal (no longer in use) is made north of Deep Creek.
1856 - Turner’s Cut completed eliminating twists of Joyce’s Creek.
1859 - Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal opens.
1861 - 1865 Civil War takes its toll on both canals. Ship sunk to block Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (own blog).
1866 - Passenger service starts on Dismal Swamp Canal.
1878 - Company is nearly bankrupt, canal deteriorates, and assets are sold.
1892 - Lake Drummond Canal & Water Company takes over.
1896 - 1899 Major improvements made, locks cut to two. The US Government is in the process of establishing a toll free inland waterway along the east coast.
1913 - US Army Corps of Engineers takes over the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.
1925 - Congress authorises purchase of the Dismal Swamp Canal.
1929 - Purchase is finally made for the same price as the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, $500,000
1933 - Canal dredged to fifty feet wide and nine feet deep.
1933 - 1934 New US 17 drawbridges is completed at Deep Creek and South Mills
1935 - New Control spillway built on feeder ditch
1940 - 1941 New concrete and steel locks built at Deep Creek and South Mills.
1974 - Great Dismal Swamp National Refuge established by Congress. Navigational needs of the canal are made secondary to water.
ALL IN ALL SO PLEASED WE DID THE DSC
VERY BEAUTIFUL, VERY STRAIGHT, NARROW AND SHALLOW