Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Dismal Swamp Canal, VA

The Great Dismal Swamp Canal has carried boats between 
Virginia and North Carolina for centuries.But dollars are tight 
and this legendary waterway may soon close. [August 2005]

By Paul Clancy

The great gates at Deep Creek yawn, as they have nearly every day for two hundred years, and we inch forward into the lock. "There are small- craft warnings, but they should lift them by nine tomorrow morning," lockkeeper Robert Peek tells us as a million or so gallons of tea-colored water floods into the chamber, churning with foam like the head of an Irish stout. We rise eight feet or so before the gates at the opposite end swing open. 

It's cold and wet, but even with the 25-foot Albin's wipers flapping and the windshield fogging, the Dismal Swamp Canal draws us immediately into an embrace. The reflection of the trees on both sides seems to bend inward and leave a narrow alley of light in the middle of the canal, constantly moving with the boat, stretching as far as we can see, beckoning. Canada geese rise up with indignant honks as we leave the lock, wings slapping dark water as they reach for altitude.

It's a scene that's been repeated for centuries on this secluded ribbon of water. The canal, America's oldest hand-dug waterway, runs alongside a vast wetland—the Great Dismal Swamp—that throbs with both wildlife and folklore. The 22-mile canal is a lesser known part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a protected route that connects Hampton Roads and North Carolina's Albemarle Sound by way of a long, relatively narrow canal through long stretches of wetlands and unspoiled land. It links Virginia's Deep Creek, south of Portsmouth, with the Pasquotank River in North Carolina, making it possible to travel by boat from Norfolk to Elizabeth City, N.C. Beginning at the mouth of Deep Creek and ending at the public piers in Elizabeth City, the trip is 43 miles. Cloaked with mystery and beauty, the canal offers a languorous alternative to more boisterous north-south inland routes.

And it is, after 200 years of continuous operation, threatened with extinction. It's the budget thing: not enough federal money to keep it open beyond September 30, unless Congress restores the funds needed to maintain it and operate the locks. I had to make this trip because it wasn't clear how many more times I—or anyone else—would be able to do it. But did it have to be today?

"You're not really going are you?" I had asked George Ramsey, assuming (and really hoping) that our planned trip down the canal would be put off to a day when a storm wasn't barreling through, bringing heavy rain and 30-something winds for goodness sakes. "Sure we are," said the dauntless canal historian, who had invited me to join him for what would amount to a personal guided tour. "There are more than a dozen boats down at the visitor center. They're going to have a feast tonight and we can go down and join them. You'll find all the people you want to talk to right there."

"Uh . . . what kind of boat are we talking about?" I asked, picturing some kind of open skiff. "Is it, like, covered?"

"Don't worry, we'll be nice and dry," he chirped.

Oh, boy.

Well, thiswasmy idea, after all. I had taken my 30-foot sailboat down the canal to Elizabeth City a month earlier in only slightly more promising weather, hoping to find other boaters to talk to along the way. But the annual northern migration of snowbirds was way behind schedule this cold, wet, windy spring. When I reached Elizabeth City, the downtown was deserted. It was clear but still windy, and I docked in a near-gale. There were no "Rose Buddies," the famous greeters who hand out roses to transiting boaters, no wine-and-cheese party either. Just a cold, rocky berth on the waterfront. I headed back home the next morning. April was just too early. I'd try later.

At first, this Friday morning in mid-May seems worse, but an optimistic forecast for the weekend seals my fate. We're going. George Ramsey has recruited Bill Spaur, his friend and fellow canal lover, to take us. Spaur is a retired senior medical officer with the Navy's experimental diving unit. He knows what he's doing, I gather. He lives on a small canal, the Gilmerton Cut, that branches off from Deep Creek just above the lock, and his boat, an Albin 25 motor-cruiser with enclosed cabin, looks plenty seaworthy.

To the right as we leave the lock, there's "Elizabeth's Dock," the piers dedicated to Spaur's late wife, Elizabeth Thornton. She was a member of the Chesapeake, Va., City Council known for waging war with developers. Spaur, Ramsey and other friends rebuilt and expanded what had been an almost unusable dock. Today there are a couple of Nordic Tugs sitting there, and in a few weeks, theBonnie Blue, a vessel built to look like an old-time steamboat, will begin taking passengers from there to Elizabeth City and back. After locking us through, the lockkeeper jumps in his pickup and hustles down to the Deep Creek Bridge, which he then raises, and we're on our way.

The idea for the canal goes back to Colonel William Byrd, who, after surveying the Virginia-North Carolina border in 1728, famously called the vast lowland "dismal." Nevertheless, with roads between the two states nearly non-existent, the need for a water route was clear. George Washington is often given credit for surveying the canal, but his involvement is limited to a partnership with a group of "adventurers" who owned and logged 50,000 acres of the swamp. Construction didn't begin until 1793 and took 12 years to complete. In 1805, according to a history by Ramsey, the Calendar of State Papers reported that "a junction has been affected betwixt the waters of the Elizabeth River and Pasquotank . . . navigable to admit shingle flats [flat boats carrying cedar shingles] to pass the whole distance river to river." Over the years improvements were made to what was first described as little more than a muddy ditch, and in June 1814 theNorfolk Gazette and Public Ledgerreported that a 20-ton decked boat carrying bacon and brandy transited the canal.

I was interested to learn that among the workers who dug the canal were paid slaves. Some of them were actually able to purchase their freedom with their wages. For canal worker and slave Moses Grandy, this was easier said than done. The story goes that he twice scraped together the money to buy his freedom only to have his owners pocket the cash and sell him. Finally a Norfolk merchant bought his freedom and trusted him for the $600. Grandy paid him back, but hightailed it to Boston, where he earned enough to free his wife and son as well.

Not all slaves were so lucky of course. In the years leading up to the Civil War the swamp became a refuge for runaway slaves and a pathway to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. Stories of these secret communities inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to penThe Slave in the Dismal Swampin 1842, and in 1856 Harriet Beecher Stowe followed her Uncle Tom's Cabinwith Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp. In forays from his island in the swamp, fictional Dred—inspired by the real-life Nat Turner—preached against slavery. The book, panned by critics, sold 300,000 copies anyway. The existence of real-life runaways in Dismal Swamp had been alluded to, even romanticized, for half a century, but no one had captured a single likeness—until 1856, when David Hunter Strother, a writer-illustrator for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, went to see the place for himself. Not long after stepping into the swamp from a log-paved causeway, Strother heard something moving nearby.

"I paused, held my breath and sunk quietly down among the reeds," Strother wrote. "About thirty paces from me I saw a gigantic Negro, with a tattered blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and a gun in his hand. His head was bare, and he had little other clothing than a pair of ragged breeches and boots. The expression of the face was of mingled fear and ferocity, and every movement betrayed a life of habitual caution and watchfulness. . . . Fortunately he did not discover me, but presently turned and disappeared." Strother's sketch of this "remarkable figure" was firsthand evidence of a world that had been hidden for decades.

That the swamp and its canal—as well as Lake Drummond, connected to the canal by a feeder ditch—were mysterious, frightening and beautiful is evident in nearly every story, history and reminiscence about them. In a lengthy pamphlet published in 1888, one Robert Arnold of Suffolk, Va., wrote about his experiences there. He describes a sunrise in May 1832 over Lake Drummond, where his father had taken him fishing as a youngster:

"The morning was misty, just enough so as to hide the dense woods which stood on the eastern shore of the Lake, and at the same time served as a background to the grand display of nature, and make it appear as if the sun actually came up out of the water as it were. The mist in front was dispelled, and the rays of sun playing on the rippling water would cause you to think that it was one vast cluster of diamonds. The sight was grand beyond my power to describe it, and I never expect to behold such a scene again. . . . the balmy breeze, the air filled with perfume of the wild flowers, which grew around the Lake, birds carolled forth sweet music as they flitted from limb to limb. . . . Meditating on the beauty and grandeur that surrounded  us . . . suddenly we were awakened from our reverie by the hoarse growl and lapping of the bears, and horrid cries of the wild cats, which would cause the blood to curdle in the veins. Thus with the sweet some sour always will be found."

(You can find more stories and history on the canal and the swamp

The shallow canal was dotted with eight separate stone locks, hardly an efficient water highway. But it was used by flat boats and log rafts that were manually poled or towed from an adjacent towpath. The swamp was loaded with valuable timber—especially long-legged junipers, or Atlantic white cedar—and landowners seeking ways to get their timber to market crisscrossed the low country with logging ditches. Running in all directions, the miles of ditches drained water from the canal and nearly turned it into a mudflat—at least, until a feeder ditch from Lake Drummond brought water levels back up.

Ramsey fishes in a briefcase and pulls out black and white photos of men standing among thick forests and of "skidways" where thousands of trees were rolled down to the canal banks, tied up as log rafts and floated to mills in Deep Creek and South Mills. Billions of board feet of juniper were extracted this way from the swamp.

Ramsey, a director of the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society, is the closest thing we have to a Dismal Swamp Canal historian. The former Coast Guard warrant officer and broadcast engineer has almost single-handedly unearthed the old granite mile markers that once lined the canal and had them restored to the banks. Most had been unceremoniously dumped in the water when the canal was widened from 50 to 80 feet near the turn of the 20th century. He and his fellow canal lovers waded into the water, tapping the muck with boat hooks until they heard thunks. Then, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, they had them raised and replanted in the soft, peaty soil of the bank. He's even published a booklet:Stone Mileposts along the Dismal Swamp Canal.

He points out granite mile marker 2 and then the remnants of one of the old stone locks. There were eight locks at one time, before the canal was deepened with the help of water pumped in from Lake Drummond, the huge lake connected to the canal by a feeder ditch. "This is the first stone lock ever in Tidewater Virginia," announces Ramsey, wiping at the window with a cloth, peering over his tortoise-shell bifocals with sharp blue eyes.

One of his most memorable finds in researching the canal's past was a classified ad from an 1819 newspaper seeking stonemasons to build a lock two miles below Deep Creek. Because there are no surviving construction documents, this was the historian's equivalent of a gold mine, a small footprint on the public record. "It blew me away," he says.

The rain continues and there's wind high in the treetops, but down in the canal it's calm—one reason some people bring their boats in here during hurricanes. We chug along at nearly six knots, picking up a little speed after passing the feeder ditch from Lake Drummond, where water rushing out into the canal adds a slight current. More geese, some great blue herons and a kingfisher take flight.

"Uh-oh, what happened here?"

Ramsey exclaims as we catch sight of the old two-story building that used to be the superintendent's house. There are several broken windows—the old leaded kind that Ramsey and Spaul painstakingly replaced recently—and a gaping hole in the side where vandals obviously entered. It pains Ramsey, who is the unofficial caretaker of the building. Why anyone would do that is beyond his comprehension. "How do you get in the mind of a jackass?" he snorts. He'd like to see the house restored some day, but what would happen to it then?

As slow as we're going, the trip seems to rush by, maybe because there's so much to see and think about. As we pass the sign marking the border between North Carolina and Virginia, I remember what I read about Lake Drummond, just a few miles northwest of here. Specifically, I remember the stories of the Lake Drummond Hotel, an infamous "halfway house" of the mid-1800s that sat right on the dividing line (which was a bit farther north back then). The hotel was known for quickie marriages and, oddly enough, duels. The dueling parties would reportedly stand on opposite sides of the state line and blast away, with the loser falling down in the other state. Since there were no extradition laws then, the survivor couldn't be brought to justice. Three miles south of the state line was Major Farange's Ordinary, no doubt a rowdy place during the canal's heyday, when landings dotted its length and regular postal service kept its denizens tied to the rest of the world, Ramsey writes in his history of the canal.

We slow down at mile marker 15. "This is Bill's and my favorite," Ramsey announces. "We found it under two feet of water and picked it up ourselves." The feat involved a cable, a pulley hung from a nearby tree and a boat trailer attached to Ramsey's car bumper. "Our rig would have inspired Smokey Stover," Spaur says. They spent two hours, lost the marker once and lost the pulley out of the tree. But eventually they got it up on the bank and in the hole.

A few miles farther we spot what can only be called a gaggle of boats, lying hard by the east side of the canal. It's the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, one of the few places in the world that caters to both highway and waterway visitors. There are about 15 boats, several of them big-hipped catamarans and trawlers, rafted together. We become the 16th, tying up to a sailboat that has a trawler on its other side, with yet another beside that. A woman pokes her head up from a nearby boat. "Hey, y'all, we're havin' dinner up at the office in a few minutes."

No friendlier words were ever spoken. It's still raining and we're starving. But these nice folks, all quite chummy after a couple of days here, have gotten together, prepared a menu, borrowed a car and gone to the grocery. By the time we arrive, there are two huge pots of vegetable stew and one of ribs, as well as slaw, nachos and peach shortcake.

"Dig in," says Penny Leary-Smith, the center's director. "We've got plenty!" And we do, some crowded around the counter, some around the TV, glued to weather reports, which at the moment warn of severe storms on the coast. But not here. Jim and Cyndi McKay of Ten Mile, Tenn., are wearing hats that say america's great loop cruising association. They're on an 11-month trip in their Grand Banks motor-yacht, traveling the Hudson River, Erie Canal and all the other connectors that will take them back to the Tennessee River and home. They're tall, friendly, outgoing, and love to tell you what the name of their yacht,MAILA, stands for: Messing Around In Lower Alabama.

"We love this canal; God, it's beautiful," Jim McKay says, tackling the ribs. "These folks don't know us from Adam's house cat, and yet they've made us feel right at home," Cyndi says.

A couple from another boat tells me they've spent the last two rainy days tied up at the center, watching soaps on their satellite TV. Like others on this canal, they aren't in a hurry.

Alice and Don Imbur from Wicomico Church, Va., are among the guests, homeward bound in their 34-foot catamaran,Ally's Cat, after a journey that took them to Honduras and Guatemala. With a sailor's gleam in his eye, Don tells me how they flew nonstop on a beam reach from western Cuba to Honduras in two days. It was rougher coming back, and they're glad to be in this quiet  approach to the Chesapeake and home.

"The serenity level rises as soon as you pass the railroad bridge," Alice Imbur says, referring to the drawbridge just north of Elizabeth City, where a long stretch of the mostly wild Pasquotank River begins and leads north to the canal. "It's so green, so natural. I feel like I've gone back in time a hundred years being here. It's such a unique place. What a shame if this place goes."

The canal's hard times aren't new, Ramsey tells the group as he gives a quick history lesson. Its heyday quickly passed, largely because of the alternate Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, which opened in 1859. That canal had no tolls, leaving the Dismal as the only toll-charging route, and "it beat the pants off this slow, easy canal. But it certainly has the appeal for a bunch of us sentimental people to want to keep it open."

In 1988, the canal was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation hasn't helped it when it comes to funding. Last year, funds were cut for much of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway—including the canal—provoking an extraordinary grassroots effort from Florida to Virginia. Folks traveled to Washington, sent letters and petitions and e-mails, and finally, at the last minute, prevailed, obtaining enough money to keep the canal open, as well as maintain the ICW.

This year, though, canal fans are more worried, because while funds are intact for the rest of the waterway, only $300,000 has been set aside for the canal. That's a third of what it takes ($900,000 annually) for the Corps of Engineers to operate the 22-mile long canal—to work the locks at Deep Creek in Virginia and South Mills in North Carolina, clear the debris that constantly falls into the water and operate the pumps that move the water for the locks. On October 1, unless Congress is once again goaded into rescuing it, the canal will close. Boaters can still use the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, which also carries commercial traffic—and that's the difference, according to federal guidelines. Commercial productivity, a certain magic number of million tons moved by barge, is what justifies the expense. Canal supporters hope to change that formula to include tourist traffic, but it could take years.

About 2,000 boats come through the canal every year, a small fraction of those who travel the waterway as a whole. The numbers fell off last year, most likely because some boaters thought it was closed. Ramsey and friends went down to the Alligator River this spring and tacked up signs to let people know that, rumors to the contrary, it was open. Many cruising boaters love the old route and the pace of the canal—no-wake all the way. They've grown accustomed to the welcome they get in Elizabeth City, "the Harbor of Hospitality," where there's free two-day tie-up, and at the Welcome Center, a convenient stop if they don't want to push all the way to Norfolk or Portsmouth in a day. Of course, Elizabeth City, with new waterfront restaurants and a soon-to-open downtown museum, is happy to see them. The canal is the only way traveling boaters would pass through the city (the other north-south route is through Coinjock and Currituck Sound to the east), and city officials are anxious to keep this lifeline open.

We spend a cold but otherwise comfortable night in our rafted-up, closed-up boat. The rain is still falling and somewhere up there in the trees the wind keeps huffing. But by morning, before Spaur has the first cups of coffee ready, the clouds have blown over and sunshine, lovely barrels of it, splashes on the boats and the canal. As though that were a signal, boat engines cough to life and a consensus quickly forms: They'll all head for the 11 a.m. opening at Deep Creek Lock.

It takes a while to get all the boats untangled, but one by one they head north, forming a long line that leaves a series of tea-stained wakes behind, streaming through a whole lot of history. Some, perhaps, for the last time.

Cruiser's Digest: Dismal Swamp Canal, Va.

One of the most interesting things about taking the Dismal Swamp Canal is getting there. This includes bridge openings and lock openings (known as lockings), so have your VHF radio tuned to channel 13. It also means jumping on the northernmost part of the Intracoastal Waterway, starting at Mile Marker Zero (lighted buoy 36) just off the Portsmouth Naval Hospital on the Elizabeth River. All the markers are measured in statute rather than nautical miles, so I found it helpful to set my GPS accordingly.

You'll be going through a high-traffic area (both waterway and highway), so timing is important. For instance, the Jordan Highway Bridge at 2.8 miles and the Gilmerton Highway Bridge 3 miles farther south will not open on weekdays between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. or between 3:30 and 5 p.m.—unless a commercial vessel has asked for a lift and you can slip through behind it. At other times of the day, most lifts are done for groups of boats rather than individuals, so you'll probably take a few turns near the approach while a crowd gathers. There are railroad bridges too, but they're usually up unless a train is on the way. The other consideration is that the controlling depth of the canal is 6 feet. (I went through during a rainy spring and the depths were more like 8 feet most of the way.) The Deep Creek and South Mills locks have four openings a day: 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and the lift bridge at Elizabeth City will open only on the half hour between 7 and 9 a.m. and 5 and 7 p.m.; all other times are on request. Complicated, I know, but a little planning goes a long way.

It is possible to make it all the way through this gauntlet, in either direction, but many choose to stop along the way, either at anchorages on the canal or at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (877-771-8333; at Milepost 28, about 3 miles south of the state line. The distance from Deep Creek lock to South Mills Lock is 22.2 miles, from Deep Creek lock to Elizabeth City is 40 miles, so going all the way through in one day would be difficult unless you make the 8:30 a.m. locking.
At 7.1 miles after Mile Marker Zero—just after passing under the I-64 bridge (vertical clearance 65 feet)—a sign marks the hard right turn into Deep Creek, which is the approach to the canal. Continue the "red on right" rules. After exiting the lock and passing under the lift bridge there's a Corps of Engineers tie-up on the left. Next door is a Mexican restaurant. Across the road (look out for traffic) is a Hardees and a Food Lion.

Along the way, the miles from Mile Marker Zero are numbered, with nearby historic granite markers showing the distance from Deep Creek. The feeder ditch to Lake Drummond is 21.5 miles from Zero, the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is 28 miles. It has a 150-foot dock, with free tie-ups, water, toilets, visitor information and snack machines. The South Mills Bridge is at 32.3 miles, the lock at 32.8. At 33.1, you'll enter Turner's Cut, a 3.5-mile canal, then at 36.7 the entrance to the Pasquotank, a beautiful, mostly unspoiled river. There are no lighted markers until just above Elizabeth City, so night passage isn't advised. There's a nice anchorage at 43.2 miles above Goat Island, to the right behind green "13". At 47.6 miles, you'll encounter the Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge, a hand-operated swing bridge. If it's down, a train is coming; be patient. Three miles beyond are the Elizabeth City Twin Highway Bridges [see above for restrictions]. They were quite courteous when I arrived and departed.

Mariners' Wharf, the city dock, was built in 1983 with the help of local businesses and individuals. There are 14 slips, available first-come-first-served, with free dockage for 48 hours, with no water, electric or fuel. You can tell who donated the slips from stone markers at the head of each. In nice weather, when several boats are tied up, there's likely to be a free wine and cheese party, courtesy of Fred Fearing, an enduring local institution, and the "Rose Buddies," with flowers from a nearby rose garden. There are several downtown restaurants, including two on the waterfront: Grouper's Seafood Restaurant, 400 S. Water St., (252-331-2431), and Cypress Creek Grill, 113 S. Water St., (252-334-0015).