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The Dismal Swamp Canal – Genesis

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North Carolina planters dreamed of a Dismal Swamp Canal connecting them to the port at Norfolk and to markets beyond.

When it came to high-quality seaports, nature was stingy toward North Carolina. Our principal colonial ports at Wilmington, Edenton and New Bern all paled in comparison to the magnificent harbors in neighboring colonies, notably Norfolk and Charleston. For North Carolina ports, shoal waters both inshore and offshore made shipping more hazardous and more expensive, rendering our ports less attractive to exporters.

From early colonial times, an era of deplorable roads, North Carolina mercantile interests dreamed of a waterway by which they could transport goods to Norfolk for shipment to distant markets. Those goods were not only crops from eastern plantations, but also Piedmont bounty hauled down the Roanoke River in bateaux.

A canal linking the Albemarle with Norfolk would not need to be long. A good portion of the total distance could already be navigated on Virginia and North Carolina rivers. But a canal connecting those rivers would have to traverse 20 or more miles of the brooding Great Dismal Swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp occupies 2,200 square miles in Currituck, Camden, and Gates counties in North Carolina. It contains the headwaters of five major rivers. From the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp, the Pasquotank, Perquimans, and North River all flow south into the Albemarle Sound, while the Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers flow north into the Chesapeake Bay.

In 1710, Virginian William Byrd spent time in the swamp while surveying the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. He described it as, “… a vast Body of mire and Nastiness.”

The tangled landscape of the Great Dismal Swamp
The tangled landscape of the Great Dismal Swamp

A 1853 description of the landscape by New York Daily Times reporter Frederick Law Olmsted, hints at the challenges of cutting a canal. He described the terrain of the Great Dismal Swamp as:

… a vast quagmire, the soil being entirely composed of decayed vegetable fibre, saturated and surcharged with water; yielding or quaking on the surface to the tread of man, and a large part of it, during most of the year, half inundated with standing pools. It is divided by creeks and water veins, and in the center is a pond six miles long and three broad, the shores of which, strange to say, are at a higher elevation above the sea than any other part of the swamp, and yet of the same miry consistency.

Except by log roads the swamp is scarcely passable in many parts, owing not only to the softness of the sponge, but to the obstruction caused by innumerable shrubs, vines, creepers, and briars, which often take entire possession of the surface, forming a dense brake or jungle.

Swamp dreams

William Byrd suggested in 1730 that a canal might be cut through the swamp. Fifty years later, George Washington – who as a young land speculator had been a principal in several commercial ventures in the swamp – believed so, too. In 1784, Washington wrote:

George Washington
George Washington

I have Long been satisfied with the practicability of opening communication between the waters which empty into Albemarle Sound through Drummond’s Pond and the Waters of the Elizabeth or Nansemond Rivers.

But Washington also feared that the undertaking:

…would in my opinion be tedious and attended with an expense which might prove discouraging.

It is impolitic and dangerous...

Joseph and Benjamin Jones of Pasquotank County are credited with rescusitating interest in a canal in the 1780s, and their efforts were supported by luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry (then governor of Virginia), and influential North Carolina politician Hugh Williamson.

Following their lead, representatives from North Carolina and Virginia convened in Fayetteville to develop a joint venture to cut a canal through the Great Dismal Swamp. And on December 1, 1787, the Virginia legislature authorized the joint plan.

But in North Carolina, passage of legislation was delayed by a fervent political debate. Die-hard Democrats (the conservative voice of that era) still believed it was improper for a state government to help finance internal improvements (i.e. infrastructure). And involvement by the new federal government would be flatly unconstitutional.

Furthermore, they argued, the plan would enrich a “neighboring nation” at the expense of North Carolina. (The fact that the “neighboring nation” in question was Virginia suggests that some powerful North Carolinans were not yet really on board with all the high-minded recent talk of “these United States.”)

It is impolitic and dangerous as a state to enter into a confederacy, which at once will tend to aggrandize a neighboring nation, and impoverish our own – Norfolk from its situation will rise to be the emporium of commerce of the Southern States, while the eastern sea ports of North Carolina will dwindle into fishing towns – the one will rise into a proportionate ratio of trade, wealth, importance and populousness to the decrease, waste and insignificance of the other: it is prudent and politic to entertain a manly jealousy of neighboring states.

To which Whig Archibald Murphey offered balm:

We should remember that we belong to the same political confederacy and that we are members of the same kindred family.

And Hugh Williamson, a revered North Carolina politician who had been a signatory of the United States Constitution, offered scorn. Williamson was from Edenton, which was likely to suffer from construction of the canal, but he understood that the state had to take action on “internal improvements” in order to be competitive as a whole.

Hugh Williamson
Hugh Williamson

The exertions of other states in making roads and canals and opening rivers should make our people ashamed.

In November of 1790, the North Carolina legislature finally passed authorization. It chartered the Dismal Swamp Canal Company to secure funding and to actualize the plan.

After fifty years of speculation and four years of acrimonious debate, a milestone had been reached. It was time to make the canal a reality. The easy part of building the Dismal Swamp Canal was done.


[Next week, more about the back-breaking work of digging the ditch and about the economic and environmental winners and losers the canal created: The Dismal Swamp Canal – Splash and Ripple.]

Map of the Albemarle region courtesy North Carolina Maps.

Photo of the tangled landscape of the Dismal Swamp courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I highly recommend Bland Simpson’s The Great Dismal, A Swamp Memoir. There is lots in the book about the canal, but also about much, much more. The New Yorker called Bland’s book “A jewel of natural and human history.”

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