Dismal Swamp Canal

The Dismal Swamp ICW passage cuts through the heart of the great swamp that straddles the North Carolina-Virginia state line. Part of the route is composed of the long Dismal Swamp Canal, which is situated between two locks, one at Deep Creek, Virginia, and the other in the small North Carolina village of South Mills. Both locks raise or lower cruising craft about 8 feet, and care must be taken when mooring to the lock walls. The locks currently operate four times a day, and skippers must take this schedule into consideration when planning their voyage.

A distance of 13 nautical miles separates the Deep Creek lock and the North Carolina state line, and an additional run of 6.8 nautical miles leads visiting cruisers to the South Mills lock.

Below South Mills, the ICW follows the wild, almost swampy northern headwaters of the Pasquotank River for 14.5 nautical miles to Elizabeth City. Beginning as a narrow, swampy stream, the river enlarges into a significant body of water by the time it reaches Elizabeth City. ....

Farther south past Elizabeth City, the ICW follows the ever-broadening waters of the lower Pasquotank to Albemarle Sound. Surprisingly, the southern portion of the river offers only a single possibility for overnight anchorage.

Anchorages are all but nonexistent on the Dismal Swamp Canal itself. Several overnight havens offer good shelter on the Pasquotank north of Elizabeth City, particularly for vessels under 40 feet in length.

Due to its width, the Dismal Swamp Canal is not particularly recommended for craft over 50 feet in length or those drawing more than 5-1/2 feet. Generally, minimum depths on the canal run 6-1/2 feet, though drought conditions occasionally lower these soundings. In times of plentiful rainfall, the canal offers greater depths, sometimes running to as much as 8 or 9 feet.

NOTE FROM THE USACE: The Dismal Swamp Canal is maintained to a depth of 6 feet on center line, however, boater should verify the latest channel conditions, and obey the no wake requirements. The locks, bridges, and canal are limited to a width of 50 feet, the length of the locks are limited to 300 feet. During drought conditions, the canal may have restrictions on the lock openings or even close.

The Dismal Swamp passage is definitely a treat for those interested in natural scenery. The canal allows a magnificent view of the swampy terrain, still for the most part in its natural state. Tall cypress trees with garlands of gray moss stand against a backdrop of steamy, coffee-colored water. Cruisers will likely encounter little traffic along the way, and the isolation can make for a unique cruising experience.

Unfortunately, this wild backwater character can occasionally cause problems. Floating logs and partially submerged snags are sometimes found along the canal and the northern Pasquotank. Corps of Engineers boats regularly check the channel for obstructions, but boaters should still be on the lookout for these hazards. For safety's sake, it is generally a good idea to proceed slowly along the northern (canal) portion of the route.

Several years ago, the Dismal Swamp Canal had more than its share of problems. A few dry summer seasons lowered water levels so much that the canal was closed for long stretches at a time. The water level in the canal is controlled by the depth of Lake Drummond in Virginia. If droughts lower the lake's waters below a safe depth, the canal must remain closed until conditions improve. Coastal congressmen also faced the mammoth task of generating the necessary funding to keep the locks and bridges along the canal operating. This entire situation is now much improved, with far more stable funding and generally consistent operating times.

As of this writing, the canal is usually open year-round, weather conditions permitting. The locks at both Deep Creek and South Mills operate at 8:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. During winter, the canal is sometimes closed for maintenance. Call the Corps of Engineers Great Bridge Lock in Chesapeake, Virginia (757-547-3311), or the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (252-771-8333) ahead of time to check on the latest canal conditions, particularly during the winter months.

Dismal Swamp Route History

By the late 18th century, it was apparent that northeastern North Carolina badly needed a ready outlet for its produce. Overland routes were primitive at best, and the long passage south down Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Inlet was expensive and dangerous. In 1786, commissioners were appointed from North Carolina and Virginia to study the linkage of Albemarle Sound and Chesapeake Bay by a canal running through the Dismal Swamp. In 1790, both states passed the necessary legislation for the establishment of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. One of the first subscribers was none other than George Washington. As far as this writer has been able to learn, there is no truth to the tradition that Washington conducted the original survey for the canal. He was involved in the project, but his contribution seems to have been moral and financial.

Construction began in 1793. By 1796, funds were temporarily exhausted, but a portion of the canal was completed, and a good road connected the northern and southern works. Until 1812, shallow-draft barges would journey as far north or south as possible, at which point their cargo would be unloaded onto wagons; these goods would, in turn, be reloaded on other craft waiting at the opposite end of the road. With the British blockade of the coastline during the War of 1812, the federal government awoke to the canal's potential for safely transporting goods north and south. Necessary funds were appropriated, and the project was finally completed in 1814.

The original canal was woefully inadequate for its purpose. It was too small and shallow for vessels that were large enough to safely ply Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Even with the canal's disadvantages, however, the initial heavy traffic demonstrated the need for a more easily navigable waterway. More money was advanced by the federal government, and a loan was procured from Virginia. By 1828, the canal had been completely rebuilt. The new stream averaged 40 feet in width and could accommodate vessels drawing 4-1/2 feet.

About this time, Alexander Macomb, the chief federal engineer, put forward a plan for the construction of an "inland waterway" from Norfolk to Beaufort. Nothing was done at the time, but Macomb planted a seed that would one day grow into the Intracoastal Waterway.

Even with the improvements, passage on the Dismal Swamp Canal was often fraught with delays. The five stone locks gave continual trouble, and vessels were frequently delayed for several days while repairs were made. By 1859, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (the present-day North Carolina-Virginia route) opened. This new cut was mostly free of locks and delays and eventually lured away most commercial traffic. The Dismal Swamp route fell on hard times.

Still, there were those who believed in the older channel. Through private investment, the entire canal was again rebuilt between 1895 and 1899. The new passage was wider and deeper and had only two locks. Because of these improvements, the Dismal Swamp Canal regained commercial dominance over its rival. However, in 1913, the federal government purchased the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal as part of the new Intracoastal Waterway. The Dismal Swamp Canal could not compete with the new toll-free passage, and the older route was little used until 1929, when it also was purchased by federal authorities and incorporated into the ICW.

Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp stretches from southeastern Virginia into northeastern North Carolina, beginning about 4 miles south of Suffolk, Virginia, and extending to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Today, it covers 600 square miles, but it was formerly more than six times as large. Over the years, many drainage projects have reclaimed much of the land as highly productive farming areas.

Most of the swamp is a morass of acidic, coffee-colored water, peat bogs, and large patches of rushes known as the "green sea." Some drier tracts are dense timberland that yields valuable quantities of cypress, gum, and pine. Lake Drummond, 6 miles long and 3 miles wide, sits at the center of the great swamp. It was discovered in 1677 by William Drummond, North Carolina's first colonial governor.

Since earliest colonial times, the swamp has had a sinister reputation. William Byrd surveyed the area while establishing the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia in 1728. It was he who first attached the label dismal to the swamp. Later, George Washington acquired a goodly portion of the swamp and had his slaves dig its first small canal in 1763.

Though vastly reduced in size, the Dismal Swamp still lives up to its name. Few will ever forget a trip through the magnificent Great Dismal.

Welcome Center

In 1989, North Carolina opened an on-the-water welcome center overlooking the Dismal Swamp Canal. This facility is the best thing to happen to the old canal since its last rebuilding. The center's director, Penny Leary Smith, is a prominent, vocal proponent of the Dismal Swamp Canal. She has worked long and hard to successfully promote this notable passage. Penny is one of the most knowledgeable people about conditions and points of interest in northeastern North Carolina that you will ever come across. If you are in need of any information, seek out Penny or one of her fine staff at the welcome center.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is the only state-sponsored facility in the United States welcoming both automobile and boating visitors. The center guards the canal's eastern banks 5 miles north of the South Mills lock, a short jog south of the North Carolina-Virginia line. Passing boaters are welcome to moor their vessels free of charge either temporarily or overnight to the 150-foot fixed wooden-face dock. Freshwater connections are available, though power connections are not. Average dockside depths are the usual 6-1/2 feet. Overnighters can make use of the on-site restrooms, though there are no showers; there is also an adjacent cookout area. Many brochures and maps are available at the center, including information about the ICW passage both north and south of the Dismal.

Expansion plans are currently under way to expand the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center to almost twice its original size. Most of the old structure will be given over to extended restroom facilities, while the welcoming desk will be moved to the new portion of the building. Completion is set for the spring of 1997. A cartop boaters' access (for canoes and other very small craft) is also in the offing. It's nice to see that our tax money does something really useful now and then!

The on-site staff monitors VHF channel 16 and stands ready to assist any visiting cruiser. From Memorial Day to October 31, the center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Between November 1 and Memorial Day, it is open from Tuesday through Saturday.

Similarly, cars traveling on U.S. 17, which parallels the canal in this area, can stop for the same information. With the demise several years ago of the ICW Welcome Station in Fernandina Beach, Florida, North Carolina can now lay claim to one of the most unique facilities on the entire Waterway.


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Many thanks to Claiborne Young for contributing to our website. If you would like more information about his Cruising Guide Series, or wish to order any of his works, click here.

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