The Dismal Swamp Canal is living history. Connecting the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia via the Elizabeth River and the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina via the Pasquotank River , this is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States. Its inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places and its designation as a National Civil Engineering Landmark are honors worthy of its colorful past. What keeps it alive and colorful today are the myriads of pleasure boaters who transit this unique waterway every year on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which provides a protected inland channel between Norfolk, VA, and Miami, FL.
Over 200 years ago, transportation was the lifeblood of the North Carolina sounds region and the tidewater areas of Virginia. The landlocked sounds were entirely dependent upon poor overland tracts or shipment along the treacherous Carolina coast to reach further markets through Norfolk.
Both George Washington and Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia felt that canals were the easiest answer for an efficient means of internal transportation. In 1784, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created. Digging began in 1793 and progressed slowly since the canal had to be dug completely by hand. Most of the labor was done by slaves hired from nearby land owners. It took approximately 12 years of back-breaking construction under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway. By 1805 flat-bottomed vessels could be admitted into the canal, where tolls were charged to allay the continual expense of improvements and maintenance.
By 1820 the Canal was recognized as an important part of commercial traffic between Virginia and North Carolina. In 1829, improvements to the waterway made it possible to accommodate deeper drafts. The 1860's and the onset of the Civil War put the canal in an important strategic position for Union and Confederate forces. Wartime activity, however, left the canal in a terrible state of repair. The repairs and maintenance needed by the canal made travel difficult.
A new era for the canal came in 1892 when the Lake Drummond Canal and Water Company launched rehabilitation efforts in 1896. Once again, a steady stream of vessels carrying lumber, shingles, farm products, and passengers made the canal a bustling interstate thoroughfare.
With the 20th century, however, improvements in modes of transportation meant another downturn for the canal. By the 1920's, commercial traffic had subsided except for passenger vessels. In 1929 it was sold to the federal government for $500,000 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains it.
Today, visitors and navigators travel where famous explorers and Presidents have stood and literary greats have been inspired for over 200 years. For example, astride the two states' border is the site where the infamous "Halfway House" hotel was built in the late 1820s. The hotel was a popular spot for marriages, duels and those escaping the law. Since the hotel was on the state line, these last simply walked to the other side of the hotel to avoid being captured in either state. It is also said that Edgar Ellen Poe wrote "The Raven" during one of his stays at the hotel. Boats today follow the course of James Adams' Floating Theatre, where Edna Ferber got the idea to write the novel "Showboat," upon which the famous musical is based.
Further information is available from:
Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center
James Adams' Floating Theatre Photo, Courtesy Fred Fearing Collection
Also see: Historic Waterways - The Dismal Swamp Canal and The Dismal Swamp Canal Timeline by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and