Dismal Swamp Canal

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See it while you can

See it while you can

As the snowbirds begin their annual migration southward through the Intracoastal Waterway this fall, politicians will still be fighting over one of its shortest spurs — but also the oldest, most historic and one of the most scenic.

Read the other story in this package: Dismal Swamp – Resources

The Dismal Swamp Canal, a 22-mile branch of the ICW straddling the eastern Virginia–North Carolina border, is the oldest continually working manmade waterway in the United States, having celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2005. Surveyed by George Washington and built largely by slaves, the canal provided the first direct link by water between Norfolk and Albemarle Sound. It remained a key navigational and commercial connection in the Mid-Atlantic region until the mid-1800s, when the wider and deeper Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was built to the east. The so-called Virginia Cut, which is now the main ICW channel, connects Virginia’s Elizabeth River to North Landing River, running down to Currituck and Albemarle sounds.

Although the Dismal Swamp Canal costs only $850,000 a year to operate and dredge — relative chump change in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $4.7 billion annual budget — the Bush administration has been trying for years to either eliminate or reduce its funding. Despite the president’s opposition, Congress has provided the Army Corps with both the money and the statutory directive to keep the Dismal Swamp Canal going.

This fall the funding battle is under way again: Skeptics still say the canal is superfluous, without commercial value and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Advocates still say the canal is an irreplaceable national treasure and worth the relatively little it costs to maintain. The White House asked for a roughly 50-percent cut in the canal’s operational funds for the current fiscal year, which supporters argue would be tantamount to closing it down. Especially with midterm congressional elections coming up in November, chances are good that Congress will ignore the president again and keep the canal open — at least, for now.

Nevertheless, it seems likely the Dismal Swamp Canal is bound to get hit hard sometime — either by a budget cut, ultimately, or by the inevitable hurricane, which would only add to the funding fight. Either way, this unique part of the ICW is a see-it-while-you-can destination.

Not for everyone

The Dismal Swamp Canal provides a beautiful and peaceful alternative for many recreational boaters who want to avoid the commercial traffic, development and congestion prevalent along the main ICW route that runs farther to the east. Despite its name, the Dismal Swamp Canal is hardly dismal (in colonial times, any swamp was called a “dismal”). In fact, most boaters who take the time to transit the Dismal are enthusiastic about the trip, because of its remote and uncrowded setting, natural beauty and teeming wildlife, and the romantically isolated sense of floating through the woods; while a highway parallels the canal (Route 17, originally the canal’s toll road), it is often well-hidden by the foliage. The surrounding Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge has some of the best animal and plant life to see in the Eastern Seaboard, and the area is a top destination for birders. The canal water’s distinctive dark-red tint (described variously as coffee-, caramel- or even maple syrup-colored) is caused naturally by tannins in the cypress and peat in the surrounding Great Dismal Swamp, not from pollution.

But it’s not for everyone: Vessels over 50 feet or drawing more than 5-1/2 feet should not attempt the Dismal Swamp Canal, since the controlling depth is six feet and sometimes less from silting or drought. Because of overhanging trees and vines, sailboats with tall masts need to stay in the center of the fairway. Floating logs or submerged snags are not unusual in the canal, especially after a storm, so it’s wise to keep a sharp lookout on the water ahead and be ready for a quick shift into neutral if necessary.

However, during our trip through the canal in May, we found the Dismal to be far cleaner of debris than the main ICW (where we ran into several floating boards or branches) and much quieter — not only due to the absence of commercial shipping, but also because of the jet fighters from Oceana Naval Air Station at Virginia Beach, Va., which buzz the skies over the main ICW farther to the east.

The canal has been closed in periods of extreme drought, when the Great Dismal Swamp’s primary water source, Lake Drummond, has been unable to maintain sufficient water flow and depth. Major storms (most recently Hurricane Isabel in 2003) also have temporarily shut down the canal because of fallen trees. Boaters are advised to check local conditions before transiting the Dismal Swamp Canal, by calling the Dismal Swamp Visitors Center, (252) 771-8333, or the Army Corps of Engineers at Deep Creek, (757) 487-0831.

Some first-hand advice

There are two locks on Dismal Swamp Canal:

• The Deep Creek (Va.) lock on the north end (about 11 miles south of Hospital Point in the Elizabeth River, in Portsmouth). Be sure to check out the tidy lockmaster’s cottage garden here for its wonderful collection of Caribbean shells, donated by passing cruisers returning from the islands.

• The South Mills (N.C.) lock on the south end (about 18 miles above Elizabeth City, N.C.).

Both locks open four times a day on the same schedule, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon: 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Each lock raises or lowers boats about 8 feet; be sure to have lines ready on the bow and stern, and fenders on the beam (or better, fender boards). A small bridge operated by the lockmaster is located just inside each lock, and is also opened by the lockmaster in coordination with the lock openings. A portable sliding bridge, closed only when in brief use, is located at mile 20.9, used by a farmer to get livestock and equipment across the canal. 

The three-mile-long Lake Drummond Feeder Ditch is located at mile 21.5, and if you have time and a dinghy, you can go up the ditch to see the lake; a free electric railway lifts small boats (under 1,000 pounds) over the spillway. Since our 26-foot sailboat draws less than 3 feet with the centerboard up, we motored up to the spillway, but did so very cautiously — there’s no tide in this fresh-water swamp to lift the boat if you go aground, and the area is too remote for cell phones or radios to call for help.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Visitors Center is about 17 miles below the Deep Creek lock, and Elizabeth City is about 15 miles below the South Mills Lock on the Pasquotank River. Because both locations depend so heavily on canal traffic, they shower recreational boaters with remarkable hospitality and offer free overnight docking for transients.

How it came to be

The possibility of digging an inland waterway connection between Virginia and North Carolina had been studied since colonial times, including by George Washington, who surveyed the Dismal Swamp in 1763. Not long after the War for Independence, the Virginia and North Carolina legislatures enacted laws to authorize construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal, and in 1792 work began on both ends to carve out a 22-mile link between the Elizabeth River in Virginia (at Deep Creek), with Albemarle Sound (at Pasquotank River) in North Carolina.

That makes it the oldest working man-made waterway in the nation: New York’s Erie Canal wasn’t authorized until 1817 and didn’t open until 1825, and construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal along the Potomac River west of Washington, D.C., didn’t begin operation until 1828. The Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) canal on the north end of the Chesapeake Bay took 25 years to build and didn’t open for business until 1829.

Slaves from local plantations did most of the back-breaking work (along with some poor whites) of tree clearing and ditch-digging in the muddy ooze, all the while fighting yellow flies, mosquitoes and snakes. Washington was one of several prominent land speculators who formed two Dismal Swamp syndicates to drain the swamp and dig the canal; he personally helped procure slaves for digging the canal and profited from logging the swamp.

In 1805 the canal marked its first boat passage: A narrow flat hauling cedar shingles, pulled through what was described as “little more than a muddy ditch.” By 1814 the ditch had been enlarged to the point where it could handle large vessels, and major improvements (particularly stone lift-locks) were introduced starting in 1819. Tolls were levied both on the boats pulled through the canal and land traffic using the adjoining road.

The Dismal Swamp Canal boomed for the next 40 years, until the opening in 1859 of the Virginia Cut. The canal fell into disrepair during the Civil War, but afterwards was restored and improved. By the dawn of the 20th century, railroads and wagon roads were making canal technology obsolete, and in 1929 the federal government bought the Dismal Swamp Canal for $500,000. The Army Corps of Engineers has operated it ever since.

Today, the Great Dismal Swamp is actually a system of canals and ditches, fed primarily by Lake Drummond, and amounts to only 600 square miles — a shadow of its original 2,200 square-mile size. Congress created the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, protecting about 111,000 acres.

But within that much-reduced wilderness is one of the richest collections of flora and fauna in the eastern United States: More than 200 bird species have been identified in the swamp, and wildlife includes black bear, foxes, mink and bobcat — and less-fluffy animals such as alligators and three species of poisonous snakes (along with 18 non-poisonous ones). The refuge offers boating (in Lake Drummond), biking (along the Washington Ditch) and hiking.

Swamp legends

No swamp would be worthy of the name without legends, and the Great Dismal has its share — including some that are even true.

Native legends: “The Lady of the Lake” is said to be an Indian maid who died just before her wedding and is sometimes seen at night paddling her ghostly white canoe across the waters of Lake Drummond; unromantic types attribute the apparition to foxfire (a night-time glow from decaying wood fungi), burning methane escaping from decomposing vegetation, or smoldering peat. Also in Indian lore, the lake’s gnarled, bald cypress trees, notable for their evocative “knees” (roots) sticking above the shallow water, descended from the “deer tree” — said to have been a deer (or witch) that escaped its pursuers by splashing into the water and changing itself into a tree, but then couldn’t reverse the spell.

Maybe true: the pirate Blackbeard, a large figure in North Carolina lore, is said to have sailed near the Dismal to fill his ships’ barrels with water. The swamp’s caramel-colored, naturally acidic water was prized by sailors for its resistance to bacterial growth that usually fouled the drinking water on long voyages (sailors called it “lively water” for all the critters it contained).

Definitely true: The infamous “Halfway House” (the Lake Drummond Hotel), built in the late 1820s on the Virginia-North Carolina state line, became a popular spot for marriages (for a night or even longer), duels and fleeing the law — simply by walking to the other side of the hotel to escape a sheriff’s jurisdiction and avoid arrest.

Not true: That Edgar Allan Poe wrote his most famous poem, “The Raven,” at the Lake Drummond Hotel. Literary experts say he began the work in Philadelphia and finished it in New York.

Sadly true: Untold numbers of slaves escaped their inhumane conditions by hiding deep within the Great Dismal Swamp, choosing the unknown threats from woods, water, and wilderness over the certain brutality from slave masters. No one knows how many slaves lived in the Dismal, but historians consider it one of the largest “maroon colonies” — or hidden communities of escaped slaves — in the United States. The Great Dismal Swamp’s role as a sanctuary for runaway slaves seeking freedom was acknowledged in 2004, when the National Park Service officially included it (and the canal) as a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Steve Blakely is an editor in Washington, D.C.