In 1728, Colonel William Byrd II surveyed the Great Dismal Swamp to determine the boundaries between Virginia and North Carolina. Byrd proposed digging a series of ditches to drain the swamp. He was the first to suggest the benefit of digging a channel between the Albemarle Sound and the Elizabeth River. However, the canal was not dug for another sixty years.
George Washington expressed interest in the Great Dismal Swamp in 1763 when he and five others formed a company with the desire to drain the Great Dismal Swamp. In January 1764, the Virginia Assembly chartered Washington’s company. However, financial problems prevented the digging of the canal. Regardless, Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Virginia’s Governor Patrick Henry advocated for the canal, and on December 1, 1787, the Virginia Assembly passed an act to dig a canal between the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound.
North Carolina was more hesitant to pass a resolution to dig the canal. With northern traffic blocked by the swamp, Edenton flourished as a trading port despite the land barrier created by the Outer Banks. The Dismal Swamp Canal was contested because it was likely to shift trade from North Carolina’s coastal towns, like Edenton, to Norfolk, Virginia. At the time, there were also competing proposals to dig shipping lanes through North Carolina’s Outer Banks to increase access to North Carolina’s port cities.
The primary advocate of the canal in North Carolina was Edenton’s own Hugh Williamson. Williamson, an advocate of internal improvements, believed the canal would be an economic boon to the state of North Carolina. Despite the detrimental effect on Edenton, the canal increased trade in northeastern North Carolina. North Carolina’s Assembly passed an act in November 1790 to build a canal through the Dismal Swamp. The passage of the act ended legislative discussion about digging lanes through the Outer Banks.
Construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal began in 1793 and was conducted primarily by hired slave labor. The canal was built from the ends and met in the middle. When completed in 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal connected Deep Creek, V.A., and South Mills, N.C., and created a waterway between the Elizabeth and Pasquotank Rivers; thus connecting the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. The Dismal Swamp Canal Company, North Carolina, and Virginia jointly funded the project. Building the Dismal Swamp Canal was difficult, and when completed in 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal was “little more than a muddy ditch” that could only support the passage of flatboats. However, at the time the canal was primarily used to transport lumber from the Dismal Swamp. According to Alexander Crosby Brown, the Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest surviving excavated waterway in North America.
The War of 1812 increased the desire to have a “back door” shipping route between Virginia and North Carolina. However, the Dismal Swamp Canal was not able to provide an adequate alternative route during the War of 1812, but efforts increased to make the canal more useable. The canal was expanded, and the first recorded passage of a vessel other than a flatboat occurred in June 1814.
To raise revenue, the Dismal Swamp Canal charged a toll and instituted a series of lotteries. Improvements continued, and in 1823, it was reported that the first schooner passed through the canal. On May 18, 1826, the United States Congress purchased shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company creating a unique situation where the canal operated with the cooperation of Federal, State, and private investors. The canal benefited again from 1827 to 1828 when the United States Government built a large dry dock at the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia near entrance to the Dismal Swamp Canal. The location was chosen for its proximity to shipbuilding materials from Dismal Swamp. By 1829, the Dismal Swamp Canal was fully operational for sustained commercial traffic.
As the Dismal Swamp Canal expanded, it also diminished international trade in North Carolina’s northeastern port cities; North Carolina’s Outer Banks formed a natural barrier to North Carolina’s port towns. Norfolk, Virginia was easier to access and the Dismal Swamp Canal ensured goods could easily reach North Carolina. By 1825, the commercial traffic from the canal greatly diminished trade in Edenton. While it was a boon to Norfolk, the editor of the Gazette, an Edenton newspaper, in 1830 reported the Dismal Swamp Canal was “to North Carolina a blood-sucker at her very vitals.” Furthermore, the decision to dig the canal meant the North Carolina House of Commons would not pass legislation to cut sea-lanes through North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As a result, during the 1830s, Edenton was forced to change its principal economy from trading to fishing.
The Dismal Swamp Canal also affected the ecology of the local area. The canal diverted water from traditional drainage patterns, devastating land east of the canal and increasing flooding to the west. In 1828, the Atlantic inlet into the Currituck Sound closed due to the diversion of water in the Dismal Swamp and shifted the sound from salt-water to freshwater, upsetting the oyster and salt water fishing industries and changing commerce in the region.
As trade expanded, several establishments developed along the Dismal Swamp Canal. In 1829, the Lake Drummond Hotel was built straddling the Virginia-North Carolina border. The Lake Drummond Hotel was a popular place for duels, eloping couples, and fugitives escaping justice. Furthermore, the communities at the ends of the canal, Deep Creek, V.A. and South Mills, N.C., grew in importance and size. Settlements, such as Wallaceton, also grew near the canal’s locks.
The Dismal Swamp Canal suffered setbacks in the 1840s and 1850s. Railroads increased competition with the canal, and in 1859, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal finished construction. The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal directly competed with the Dismal Swamp Canal as the region’s trade route.
Just prior to the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp became a popular haven for escaped slaves. This prompted numerous efforts to hunt down the runaways. The runaways pilfered supplies from traders and the canal company. The Dismal Swamp was the setting for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, but the book never achieved the same level of popularity as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Dismal Swamp Canal was used heavily by the Confederacy during the initial stages of the Civil War, but in 1862 Union forces took control of the waterway. The Dismal Swamp Canal was used by the Union during the Civil War to move forces between the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. The Dismal Swamp Canal survived the war and was returned to its owners, but the Union did not properly maintain the canal and left it in poor condition.
Following the Civil War the Dismal Swamp Canal suffered great financial turmoil. The State of Virginia, bankrupt after the war, was forced to sell its stock in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company for a fraction of its value. Stopgap repairs were made to the canal to keep it functional. However, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company remained in financial ruin and in 1877 was facing bankruptcy. When the company announced the sale of the canal, the federal government, who owned 5/12’s of the company’s stock, stepped in and delayed the sale. Then in 1878, the United States government sold its shares in the company. The Dismal Swamp Canal Company reorganized in 1880 and again in 1889. It limped along until the Lake Drummond Canal and Water Company acquired the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1892.
The Lake Drummond Canal and Water Company renovated and modernized the Dismal Swamp Canal. After the renovation project from 1896 to 1899, the Dismal Swamp Canal emerged in its current form with all intermediate locks removed. It was officially reopened on October 14, 1899 and once again became a successful business venture by charging merchants to use the waterway. It even outperformed the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal during the first decade of the twentieth century.
In 1911, the United States government purchased the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and removed the tolls. As a result, commerce shifted to the government-controlled Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. The Lake Drummond Canal and Water Company struggled to stay afloat. On March 30, 1929, the United States government acquired the Dismal Swamp Canal and it once again flourished as a toll-free waterway.
During World War II, German U-boats attacked and devastated shipping in North Carolina’s coastal waters. As a result, the Dismal Swamp Canal became a useful waterway for domestic shipping in the United States. With the completion of the war in 1945, traffic through the Dismal Swamp Canal decreased, and the canal’s primary traffic shifted from commercial shipping to private boating.
Due to increased costs and decreased benefits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the the Dismal Swamp Canal’s hours of operation from 24 hours to 16 hours a day in 1946. This was reversed in 1947 but reinstituted in 1950 and remains the policy today. Believing that the Dismal Swamp Canal is no longer useful, members of the Army Corps of Engineers have attempted to shut down or transfer control of the canal since the 1950s. However, locals have remained vigilant and pressured the government to keep the canal open.
Today, the Dismal Swamp Canal is the eastern boundary of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and is the eastern boundary of North Carolina’s 14,000 acres Dismal Swamp Park. According to historian Bland Simpson, the North Carolina Welcome Center, where U.S. 17 meets the Dismal Swamp Canal, is said to be the only one in America accessible by motor vehicle or boat.
Alexander Crosby Brown, The Dismal Swamp Canal, (Norfolk County Historical Society of Chesapeake: Norfolk, V.A., 1970).
Bland Simpson, “Dismal Swamp Canal,” in Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S. Powell. (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2006), 344-46.