A richly historic man made waterway, the Great Dismal Swamp Canal MegaSite  is dedicated to the enslaved and free men that built the oldest  made waterway in America.  Now recognized as part of the National Underground Railroad, this historic waterway is a national treasure and the basis of this website.

Halfway House Dismal Swamp Canal
Halfway House VA/NC Border
Great Dismal Swamp Home Page

By George V. Ramsey

It wou'd require a great Sum of Money to drain it, but the Publik Treasure cou'd not be better bestow'd than to preserve the Lives of his Majesty's Liege People, and at the same time render so great a Tract of Swamp very Profitable, besides the advantage of making a Channel to transport by water-carriage goods from Albemarle Sound into Nansimond and Elizabeth Rivers, in Virginia.

Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

The Dismal Swamp Canal transits southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina connecting the waters of Hampton Roads, Elizabeth River and Deep Creek in the north with Joyce's (Joy's) Creek, Turner Cut, Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound to the south. The need for this "connection" was recognized early in Colonial times and several routes were proposed during those years. The earliest known written account concerning the Dismal Swamp route was a 1728 entry in his diary by William Byrd II (above).

Nothing actually developed under Colonial rule although several proposals were studied

and during the Lord Dunmore reign just prior to the Revolution several tidewater canal

routes were actually surveyed. (It is said that Lord Dunmore personally footed the bills for the survey of the proposed Williamsburg Canal and the Elizabeth River/North Landing River connection.)

Soon after our new nation was founded, the subject was taken up again. The Dismal Swamp Canal route was surveyed in 1784, and in December 1787 the Virginia General Assembly passed the "Act for cutting a navigable canal", the act to become effective "after the passing of a like act by the General Assembly of North Carolina". The North Carolina act did not pass until November 1790.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Company was formed and chartered in both states. The work of clearing and digging, by "well disposed, able Negroes and Laborers, such as Ditchers, Sawyers and Shingle Gatherers" began from both ends in 1792. It appears that the labor pool came mostly from what planters could spare "off season" when they were not needed for plantation work. They were paid for this work from company funds, which were raised legally by subscriptions and by lotteries. By 1796 five miles were completed from each end. The company's 1804 annual report stated that a mile and a half was yet to be excavated but a flanking road was passable by horse and on foot. It was expected that during the winter it would be suitable for carriages. Tolls were charged on the road soon afterward. The Calendar of State papers hailed in the year 1805: "a junction has been affected betwixt the waters of Elizabeth River and Pasquotank..... .navigable to admit shingle flats to pass the whole distance river to river." The canal was in operation, but just barely. It was described as "little more than a muddy ditch" that had two squared jumper timber locks, one near each end. "Incalculable expenses were met in its progress through a heavily timbered morass." The company made many improvements over succeeding years; more wooden locks added, the canal widened and deepened, and the feeder ditch was dug to Lake Drummond ensuring a steadier water supply for lock operation. June 1814 marked the first recorded vessel other than a shingle flat to transit the waterway end to end. The Norfolk Gazette and Public Ledger reported a twenty-ton decked boat carrying bacon and brandy had arrived at Norfolk from Scotland Neck on the Roanoke River. By 1816 the United States government had become interested in the strategic importance of the nation's waterways. The era of national canal building dawned. An in-depth study was made of the Dismal Swamp Canal. As a result, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company initiated major changes and improvements. Squared timber locks, though inexpensive to build, had always proven to be trouble to maintain and prone to floating away or washing out during flood times. Stone was being utilized successfully for lining the chambers of locks throughout other upland canals and navigation systems. Thus, stone lift-lock building was introduced to tidewater in 1819.  Over the next dozen years at least seven beautifully cut stone locks were built at the ends and along the canal. The stone material (granite) was " brought from Newark, New Jersey and cut on the spot; the backing or outside stone, from the head of tidewater on Susquehanna, Potomac, and James Rivers".

It was the beginning of the heyday for this canal. Tolls were collected from the vessels using the canal as well as from land traffic on the flanking toll road/tow path. Timber, shingle flats and other vessels were "tracked through" by manpower and by horse (mule) power. The surrounding country was being opened up to farming and timbering.  Landings were established along the length of the canal and regular postal service was established. Lake Drummond Hotel, built at the state line, and Major Farange's ordinary, three miles south of the line, were famous gathering places. The Gilmerton Canal was finished and put into usage, thus avoiding the "tortuous, winding Deep Creek", which was subject to the whims of tides and weather and sometimes held up vessels for weeks.  Turner's Cut was excavated through the swamp below South Mills at the southern end, bypassing the "odious" Moccasin Track crooks of the upper Pasquotank River.

This boom lasted right up to the completion of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1859. Toll collections dropped due to the competition. Then along came The War Between the States. Tolls dropped further and maintenance was neglected. The Dismal Swamp Canal went into a general decay and The Dismal Swamp Canal Company sank deeper and deeper into financial trouble that lasted until 1889 when the company was reorganized as Norfolk and North Carolina Canal Company. Another reorganization in 1892 created the Lake Drummond Canal and Water Company.

It was during this company's ownership that the "great improvement" was conducted.  Beginning in 1896 and continuing for three years, great steam shovels were barged through the locks and assembled in the canal. They systematically widened the canal to twice its width, destroying the toll road/tow path in the process. Great trees were uprooted and tossed aside. All the summit level locks were ripped up and destroyed. The canal was dug to the same depth from Deep Creek locks to South Mills locks, including the feeder ditch. A bigger lock/spillway control was built in the feeder ditch near Lake Drummond. Deep Creek and South Mills stone locks were re-configured, doing away with the stone "double "locks and building new timber and concrete locks to accommodate the increased height.

The practice of the "tracking through" timber flats and barges and the sailing through of

non-powered vessels was prohibited. All vessels had to be under their own power or

under tow by a towing vessel-preferably one of the company tugs. Deep Creek was

widened, straightened and dredged, doing away with a "tumbling dam".

The Gilmerton Cut was abandoned and a new dam and cross canal was built at Deep


In succeeding years, new steel and concrete locks have replaced the locks of 1899 and many other improvements have been made but the canal structure and plan remains much the same as when the 1899 great improvement was finished. The Company was sold to the United States in 1929 and, since then, has been operated and maintained by the U.S.  Army Corps of Engineers.


Copyright © 2009  William Agreste