Admiral Ross’s Journey: The Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal in 1901

Harvesting wheat, Meadowville, Va. Commander Albert Ross took the photograph while heading up the James River toward the northern end of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal in 1901. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Harvesting wheat, Meadowville, Va. Commander Albert Ross took the photograph while heading up the James River toward the northern end of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal in 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Several years ago I gave a lecture at an NEH-funded teachers workshop in New Bedford, Mass. The teachers came from all over the U.S. and one of them, Linda Garey, who teaches in California, later shared with me a group of remarkable Magic Glass lantern slides of a part of the North Carolina coast that is little known to most people: the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.

Ms. Garey’s great-grandfather, Rear Admiral Albert Ross, of the U.S. Navy, captured the images in 1901 while he was traveling from the north to the south end of the canal.

Completed in 1859, the Albemarle & Chesapeake (A&C) Canal still provides sheltered waters for coastal shipping between two of the country’s largest estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound.

Skirting the Great Dismal Swamp, the canal (if you’re going north to south) runs through the far corner of Tidewater Virginia, crosses the Va.-N.C. line, goes down the North Landing River and Currituck Sound, cuts through the peninsula that makes up most of mainland Currituck County, N.C., goes into the North River and then ends at Albemarle Sound.

When he passed through the canal in 1901, then-Commander Ross was inspector of the 5th Lighthouse District.

The U.S. Lighthouse Board had divided the country into 12 districts, and each district had an inspector. The inspector’s job was to oversee the construction of lighthouses and to insure that lighthouses, buoys and other navigational aides were well maintained.

At that time, Commander Ross’s district covered the lighthouses from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, N.C. He lived in Baltimore, was recently widowed and still had young children.

His children often accompanied him at sea, but I don’t know if they were with him when he passed down the canal.

Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. This image is labeled as a road crossing, but the label does not indicate which crossing. Three roads crossed the canal: one in Great Bridge, Va., a second North Landing, Va. (also known as Cypressville and Roper City in the late 1800s); and the last in Coinjock in N.C. image by Albert Ross. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. This image is labeled as a road crossing, but the label does not indicate which crossing. Three roads crossed the canal: one in Great Bridge, Va.; a second at North Landing, Va.; and the last at Coinjock, N.C. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

When he took the group of 18 images, he was on an inspection tour of the lighthouses in the southern part of the 5th District and was passing through the canal on the lighthouse tender Violet.

Actually only eleven of the glass lantern slides show scenes on the A&C Canal. The others feature views of rural and waterfront life along the James River in Virginia. Commander Ross took them as the Violet steamed its way up the James River on its way the canal’s northern entrance.

Ross had graduated from Annapolis in 1867. His career spanned all the way to the First World War.

A shipyard on the James River, 1901. I'm not sure, but I suspect that the red smudges on the image come from rose tinting. Lantern slides were made long before the invention of color photography, so lantern slides were only black and white. To make their slides more appealing, lantern slide makers often tinted them with transparent colors after they were put on glass. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

A shipyard on the James River, 1901. The red smudges on the image come from rose or violet tinting meant for the flowering bushes in the foreground. Lantern slides were made long before the invention of color photography, so their images were only black and white. To produce more attractive slides, the makers often tinted them with transparent colors after they were put on glass. A device called a “Magic Lantern” held the slides and had a light source that projected their image on a wall or screen. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Over those decades, he visited many different parts of the world, including China, Japan, Malta, Ceylon and Panama. Wherever his ships called or he was stationed, he used his camera to record the people and places.

Ross made more than 2,000 Magic Glass lantern slides with those images, all of which Linda Garey inherited and preserved.

While her great-grandfather’s images tell many stories, this week I’m going to focus on just one: the story of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal.

I’ve never seen better portraits of daily life on the canal. So starting tomorrow, I’m going to post the first in a series of pieces that will look closely at Rear Admiral Ross’s images.

This group of photographs from the A&C Canal is part of a larger, occasional series that I’ve been writing on this blog. That series looks closely at historical photographs of the North Carolina coast in the period from 1870 to 1941. By the end of this week, that series will include a total of 97 historical photographs of fishing, boatbuilding and other aspects of maritime life.

You can find the whole series of maritime photographs here.

But now to Rear Admiral Ross’s extraordinary photographs of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal. Through his images, I’ll  explore the canal’s history, the vessels that plied its waters, the boatmen who worked on the canal and the coastal communities that relied on the canal for travel and trade.

Tomorrow—part 2:  A Bargeman’s Life

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