First proposed by Colonel William Byrd II in 1728, the Dismal Swamp Canal was authorized by the state of Virginia in 1787 and by the state of North Carolina in 1790. Work began in 1793 and twelve years later it was barely capable of handling flat-bottomed boats with light loads and shallow drafts. The original construction included seven (7) lift locks (75' x 9') and it included over four (4) miles of slackwater for a total length of over twenty-five (25) miles. The canal is essentially two straight segments joined at an angle near the mid-point. This route allowed the canal to miss the headwaters of the Northwest River.
The Dismal Swamp Canal, between the Pasquotank River flowing
into Albermarle Sound and the Elizabeth River of Virginia near
Norfolk, was designed to give North Carolina a short and sheltered
outlet to a deepwater port. Begun in 1793 it was the only segment
of Gallatin's proposed intracoastal
waterway under construction when the Secretary wrote his report. For years, however, sporadic work produced little more than a muddy, shallow ditch which not even flatboats carrying shingles cut in the swamp could navigate until 1805. The first craft other than a shingle flat to travel its course was a 20-ton boat in 1814, and it was not until a year-and-a-half later that another such passage was recorded. The first vessel to make the trip completely loaded with North Carolina cotton, flour, tobacco, and hogs was a 35-ton schooner in 1823.
In 1826, the U.S. Congress directed the Army Engineers to
make surveys and estimates for improving and enlarging the canal
so that it might serve as part of a chain of canals contemplated
along the Atlantic coast. To pay for the reconstruction Congress
ultimately purchased $200,000 worth of Dismal Swamp Canal Company
stock. In 1829, barges carrying up to 92 tons, as well as sloops, schooners, and rafts, began plying the enlarged waterway. Traffic steadily increased, and the canal at last became a paying enterprise and an important part of the transportation system of eastern North Carolina.
The Dismal Swamp Canal has had a long and interesting life. The 1826 profile describes locks at Deep Creek, Wilkins, Northwest to the summit, Culpeper, Spences, and South Mills for the twenty-one (21) mile elevated section. A 3.25 mile feeder ditch from Lake Drummond (in Virginia) was built in 1811/1812 at right angles to the canal. When the summit was lowered, the feeder was equipped with a lock at the Lake Drummond end. This was later replaced by a dam and spillway in 1935. In 1856, the seven-mile twisting Joyce's Creek was bypassed and replaced with the 4.2 mile Turner's Cut.
The canal was enlarged and completely rebuilt in its present form in 1899. This dropped the summit level by eight (8) feet and reduced the number of lift locks to two (2).
The U.S. government acquired the canal from the bankrupt owners on 3/3/1925 for $500,000. The present locks at opposite ends of the summit level at Deep Creek, VA and South Mills, NC measure 300' by 52' with a twelve (12) foot lift installed in 1940/1941. These locks are steel and concrete.
Currently, the Dismal Swamp Canal is identified as an alternate route within the Intracoastal Waterway.