By ANN GREEN
As Capt. Merritt Walter steers the Bonny Blue through a narrow strip on the Dismal Swamp Canal, he points out the water’s reflection — a calm mirror of green trees.
“The picture doesn’t change often,” says Walter, owner of the Bonny Blue. “If you are not careful, you get tunnel vision.”
Miles of canal banks are lined with maples, junipers, cypress and gum trees. Occasionally flocks of birds move in and out.
“The refuge has more than 200 species of birds,” says Deloras Freeman, a Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge park ranger. “Many of these species can be seen from the canal that forms the eastern boundary of the refuge.”
Occasionally, boaters also might see a snake, otter, deer or turtle in the tea-colored water, or a bear running through the forest. The dark water is unusually pure because of the tannic acids from the barks of junipers, gum and cypress. Before the days of refrigeration, drinking water from the swamp was a highly prized commodity on sailing ships.
“This environment is so peaceful and quiet,” says Bonny Blue passenger Mary Lou Chambers of Greensboro. “The trip is something my husband and I had been talking about doing for a long time.”
The Bonny Blue takes groups on the canal from Deep Creek, Va., to Elizabeth City, N.C., and back. “It is a great way to cruise the canal in a comfortable fashion,” says Walter, who is deeply tanned from his years on the water.
The canal, which is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, stretches 22 miles, connecting the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia — via the Elizabeth River — to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina — via the Pasquotank River. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the canal also includes two locks, one at Deep Creek, Va., and the other in the small North Carolina village of South Mills. Both locks raise or lower cruising craft about eight feet.
As the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States, the Dismal Canal is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It also is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, an escape route used by numerous slaves in antebellum North Carolina.
Today, the canal is used mainly by recreational vehicles, including trawlers, sailboats and other watercraft and a few commercial boats. Each year, about 2,000 boaters stop in Elizabeth City while traveling down the canal, according to the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Boaters spend about $300 per trip in Elizabeth City, where there is free 48-hour docking, says Russ Haddad, director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Recreational boaters are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to see history and wildlife off the beaten path,” explains Jack Thigpen, North Carolina Sea Grant extension director. “This will lead to economic opportunities for local communities as well.”
Because of the large number of boaters on the canal, the N.C. Department of Transportation opened the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center in 1989 on U.S. 17 in Camden County. The center is located on the canal’s eastern banks, five miles north of the South Mills lock.
“We meet wonderful people by highway and waterway,” says Penny Leary-Smith, the welcome center’s director. “We see some of the same couples every spring and fall. We know them by the names of their boats.”
The Dismal Swamp Canal also has a colorful past. Its history dates back to 1728, when Col. William Byrd of Virginia described the swamp as a “vast body of dirt and nastiness.” His experience prompted him to consider a canal that would connect the Albemarle Sound to the Elizabeth River.
Famous folks have made their marks on the canal, including George Washington.
For him, the swamp was far from dismal. Washington realized the value of the area’s great stands of virgin Atlantic white cedar and organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company in 1763.
The nation’s first president and fellow investors saw the rich potential of Dismal Swamp timber and invested in 40,000 acres of timberland during the next two decades.
In 1784, then-Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia proposed a canal, and that same year, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created. Digging progressed slowly because work had to be done with hand shovels.
By 1796, the costs of building the canal had far exceeded the projected estimates, prompting the company to stop work and begin a road to connect the two canal sections. The road was completed in 1802.
Three years later, the full canal opened, Walter says.
Because the waterway was so shallow, it was limited to flat boats and log rafts that were manually poled or towed. Shipments consisted mainly of logs, shingles and other wood products from the swamp’s great stands of cedar and juniper.
“The canal became the first major means of commerce between northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia and opened the trade corridors between the sounds of North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay,” explains Robert Peek, Deep Creek lockmaster and bridge tender.
Though important to the logging industry, the canal never lived up to its original purpose of serving as a major regional waterway in its first decades.
In 1813, the Feeder Ditch was dug to provide water for the canal and to simplify travel to Lake Drammond in Virginia. The three-mile ditch is about three feet deep and reaches to the heart of the Dismal Swamp Canal.
When the canal was made deeper in 1829 to accommodate vessels drawing 5.5 feet of water, steamboats began hauling goods through the passage.
The canal’s heyday from 1829 to 1859 was the only time that investors were paid well, according to George Ramsey, director of the southeast region of the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society. “They shipped pigs, livestock, meat, beef and pork. The canal also was heavy on tar for naval stores in North Carolina and Virginia,” adds Ramsey. “They got the tar — not from the ground — but from boiling down the sap of pine trees.”
During the antebellum period, many slaves also used the canal.
“There is no telling how many runaway slaves, possibly hundreds, followed the canal and the canal bank road north toward freedom,” says Bland Simpson, author of The Great Dismal, A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir. “The canal is an engineering marvel and a truly wonderful part of America’s maritime heritage.”
With the opening of the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal in 1859, the Dismal Canal’s commerce dropped.
However, the onset of the Civil War put the Dismal Canal in an important strategic position for Union and Confederate forces.
Following disrepair after the war, private interests revitalized the canal in the mid-1890s.
By the 1920s, commercial traffic had subsided except for passenger vessels. The infrequent use and poor maintenance of the canal led to the federal government buying it in 1929 for $500,000.
Locks & Lore
Throughout its history, much has been written about the canal and the surrounding swamp’s dark secrets, ghost stories and tales of hidden runaway slaves.
These tales have been seasoned with accounts of ferocious bears, screaming bobcats and diverse flora.
Bob Hines, who grew up on Sawyer’s Creek that originates on the east side of the swamp, has seen of a lot of wildlife in and near the swamp — from wild hogs to bears, raccoons and bobcats.
“One time, my dad and I were driving down the road near the west side of the swamp during the summer, and we saw a cougar,” says Hines, a North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist. “It appeared to be black or at least dark in the dim light. It was very catlike and had a long tail. Anyway, no one ever believed that we saw it.”
Over the years, flaws in the canal’s original concept and design have caused maintenance problems, according to the Army Corps. Water levels between Deep Creek and the canal’s original end in Joyce’s Creek were not correctly measured. Even with the Feeder Ditch that supplies water from Lake Drummond, the canal periodically has low water levels.
If there is a drought, the canal can be shut down. “However, the Corps has not shut down the locks since 1999,” says Peek. For 17 years before that, the canal shut down every fall for droughts, he adds.
The locks at Deep Creek and at South Mills hold water between the two points, says Peek, the lockmaster who often entertains boaters by playing tunes on conch shells.
“At Deep Creek, it is eight to 12 feet during high tide. At the point where South Mills comes through the Elizabeth River, it is eight feet — give or take.”
During hurricanes Floyd and Irene, the locks were used as dams, adds Peek.
Despite rumors of ceasing the operation of the canal, the Corps has periodically dredged and cleared the canal to keep it open. In 2003, after Hurricane Isabel, the Corps’ Norfolk district engineers cleared almost 700 downed trees and other debris.
For the fiscal year 2006 that ends Sept. 30, federal funding will be used to operate and maintain the two locks, two bridges and three water-control structures, according to Joel Scussel, Army Corps civil engineer in Norfolk. “In addition, this funding will be used to maintain the 22-mile long canal, including snagging trees and dragging for underwater navigation obstructions,” he adds.
Bonny Blue Inception
As an avid sailor and yacht designer, Walter has taken a number of trips on the Dismal Swamp Canal.
“I had been going on this route since the 1970s and wanted to design a boat that would cruise on this scenic waterway,” explains Walter. “When you go north on the canal, the reflection on the Pasquotank River is gorgeous. So I designed a luxurious passenger boat that would accommodate up to 16 people for overnight voyages.”
In 2003, Walter and his wife, Bonnie, took the first group down the canal. “The boat was designed after the 1920 steamboat Emma K that carried freight, mail and passengers on the same route,” he says. “It was the last steamboat on the canal. It stopped running in 1921.”
The double-decker passenger yacht is decorated in a rich decor of polished walnut, tapestry and brass fittings. Passengers can sleep in double cabins with large windows, eat in a dining area, or lounge on two decks to take in the scenic environment.
On the second day of a trip, the 72-foot Bonny Blue leaves the docks at Elizabeth City in the morning with its boatload of passengers. The day before, they had traveled along the canal from Deep Creek to Elizabeth City.
“I had read about the canal and boat — and seen boats going up and down the canal while driving on Hwy. 17,” Patty Koehl of Hertford explains why she’s aboard.
Before the blue-and-white boat nears the Elizabeth City drawbridge, the blast of its siren pierces the air.
Not far from there, Walter points out the spot where he earlier saw five snakes.
Further along, the boat passes a bank covered with tall cedar trees that resemble soldiers standing on alert. As the yacht nears some pilings, Walter shows passengers where fishing camps used to stand.
“They used to bring lumber barges along here, but stopped this in the early 1970s,” he adds. “You can see where the barges banged old trees and took off the bark when coming down the river.”
Snow Birders Frequent Canal
While heading toward Turner’s Cut — “the snakiest part of the river,” according to Walter — the Bonny Blue nears a parade of sailboats.
‘This is part of the north-south crowd that goes north in the spring and south in the fall,” he says.
From radio conversations, Walter and other captains know each other by the names of their boats.
As he looks over at one large boat, he explains that the family, including two school-age children, has spent the last year in the Bahamas. “They are heading back up the East Coast,” he says.
Around noon, the mates serve lunch on the top deck. Not long after, the Bonny Blue nears the South Mills lock that opens four times a day. The captain moors alongside the lock wall, and several other sailboats moor on the starboard side.
When the lockmaster opens the gate, the rushing water sounds like a washing machine. He motions for the boats to come through.
“We have light head current,” says Walter. “We are running in six feet of water.”
As the boat passes by a bank covered with a canopy of trees, he announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an exciting time. We have crossed the North Carolina state line into Virginia.”
Then he gives a history lesson on the canal’s famed halfway house where folks used to come to duel — or to get married.
“The attraction was that the house was half in North Carolina and half in Virginia,” he adds. “Because the duelers were in different states, they were not prosecuted.”
The halfway house also is where Edgar Alan Poe wrote part of the famous poem “The Raven.”
Not far from this point, the boat nears a World War II “farmer’s bridge” that can be pushed across to the Edge farm. “This is the only boat ramp on the canal,” he says. “Farmers would load up here in the old days.”
By early afternoon, there is a cool breeze, and many passengers are on the upper deck.
Before nearing the Deep Creek bridge, Walter radios the bridge tender. “This is the Bonny Blue coming through,” he says. “The crew needs to prepare for portside landing.”
After cruising the canal for two days, the passengers have gotten a glimpse of the wildlife and colorful history of the canal and surrounding swamp.
“I enjoyed the trip,” says Meade Jones of Walkerton, Va. “It was different from cruises in the ocean because we went down a narrow canal. It was like driving through a forested area.”
This year, the Bonny Blue will begin its fourth season on the canal. To find out more about the cruises, call 866/429-8747, or visit the Web: www.bonnyblue.com.
For information on the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, call 757/986-3705, or go to: www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp/.
This article was published in the Spring 2006 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.