This is part 2 of a series I’m doing this week based on an extraordinary collection of glass lantern slides that a teacher named Linda Garey shared with me. Her great-grandfather, Rear Admiral Albert Ross, took the images on a trip down the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1901.
In our first lantern slide, we see the steam tug Dauntless pulling a lumber barge through the Albemarle & Chesapeake (A&C) Canal’s “Virginia Cut.” Commander Ross—he was not yet a Rear Admiral in 1901— took the image from the bow of the lighthouse tender Violet as it steamed east toward the North Landing River.
The Dauntless’s cargo must have originated at one of the sawmill boomtowns on the North Carolina side of the canal—either on Currituck Sound or on the east end of the Albemarle Sound.
Incredibly large quantities of lumber, shingles and staves from those eastern and southern sides of the Great Dismal Swamp passed up the A&C Canal in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
By Commander Ross’s voyage down the canal in 1901, the cutting of those old virgin swamp forests had left great swaths of barren land, abandoned towns and ecological devastation, very similar in many ways to the images of clear-cut forests that we see in places like the Amazon Basin today.
The Edge of the Great Dismal Swamp
The path of the A&C Canal was 55 miles long. Beginning at the north end, the great waterway started at the Elizabeth River in Tidewater Virginia. (The Elizabeth flows north to Norfolk and into the James River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.)
From the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, the canal extended from Great Bridge, Va. east to the North Landing River. That stretch was 8 and ½ miles long and was one of two “cuts” that had to be dug on the canal. That section of the canal largely passed through heavily forested swamplands.
Departing the Virginia Cut, the canal’s path followed the North Landing River southward across the state line into North Carolina and entered Currituck Sound.
That stretch of the canal was a natural waterway. Unlike with the two cuts, the canal’s builders did not have to clear and excavate that segment of the canal. They did, however, have to invest quite a bit of time and capital in dredging and maintaining a channel through the river.
The canal’s route then proceeded further south through Currituck Sound, passing just west of Knotts Island and Mackay’s Island and just east of Bell’s Island.
Then came the “North Carolina Cut,” which had an opening marked by one of two small lighthouses built on the canal.
The North Carolina Cut was the second section of the canal that the builders had to clear and excavate. Five and a half miles long, the cut ran south and slightly west across the peninsula that makes up most of Currituck County’s mainland.
After leaving the North Carolina Cut, vessels passed into the upper reaches of the North River, one of the Albemarle Sound’s tributaries.
As with the sections of the canal that passed through North Landing River and Currituck Sound, the North River’s upper parts were very shallow and had to be dredged to make its channel deep enough for navigation.
The canal’s second lighthouse was located at the mouth of the North River, where it entered the Albemarle Sound. That lighthouse marked the end—or if coming north, the beginning—of the A&C Canal.
By taking that route, the masters of vessels could carry freight and passengers between two of the country’s great inland seas, Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, without going into the Atlantic Ocean with its tides and currents, dangerous inlets and storms .
“Mark Twain in all his glory”
In our lantern slide, the barge’s crew is standing on their cargo of lumber and using long poles to push away from the shore. On the A&C, bargemen were rarely without a pole in hand in case they needed to fend off canal banks, log rafts or other boats and barges.
You can see the lighthouse tender Violet‘s crewmen also contending with the narrowness of the canal, bargepoles in hand, in another of Rear Admiral Ross’s lantern slides. He probably took this image immediately after the Dauntless and its lumber barge passed on the other side of the canal or the Violet‘s captain would not have steered so close to the canal’s bank.
In an April 7, 1890 account published in the New York Sun, a passenger on another steamer, the screw steamer Manteo, described navigation on the Elizabeth River and the Virginia Cut and makes clear that bargemen and lumber raftsmen alike used their poles often.
While some of the canal’s steam tugs pulled barges loaded with milled lumber (as in our first image), other tugs pulled long strings of logs that were floating in the canal and bound together with iron bars and chains.
The steamer, because of the great traffic in fish and garden truck at certain seasons of the year, is just as large as it can be and squeeze through the canal. Mark Twain in all his glory as a Mississippi pilot never saw such navigation as this. When the steamer rounds the sharper bends in the river, she must needs shave the points to keep her nose out of the opposite banks, and when another steamer is met coming up, both must hug the banks till their bilges are on the mud, and the brush and boughs that overhang the banks are sweeping across the houses on deck, dropping, now and then, a few wood ticks, a lizard, or a serpent to enliven the occasion for the timid.
The same traveler, probably the Sun’s veteran correspondent John R. Spears, observed that those tugboat crews were not exactly the meek and mild of the Earth.
He called them “the most reckless, rollicking lot of negroes ever seen afloat.”
Watching those raftsmen leap from log to log, bargepoles in hand, as they worked to control hundreds of logs was thrilling, the Sun’s correspondent wrote.
As they passed down the canal, those rafts of logs sometimes stretched 1,800 ft. or more behind the tugboats. Handling them in a narrow canal in rough weather or strong wind tides was far from easy.
Watching the raftsmen’s acrobatics and listening to the tall tales of the captain and mate as the Manteo went down the canal, the Sun’s correspondent wrote, “are enough to relieve the tedium, even when the steamer meets a raft or two [of logs], with a flat boat or two and a small schooner or two, in such a complication as prevents progress for twenty-four hours.”
The writer obviously enjoyed his passage down the A&C Canal. He also found little “dismal” about the Great Dismal Swamp through which they were passing on the Virginia Cut.
At intervals along the route there are high spots—islands in the swamp—and about all of them are under cultivation. Sawmills, stacks of lumber, railroad ties, and cordwood are to be seen, while the only really dismal thing from one side of the swamp to the other is the deserted old mill site called Roper City in the map.
Roper City was a sign of things to come. In the decades after the Civil War, it had been a wild and bustling company town deep in an old growth swamp forest.
Owned by timber magnate John L. Roper’s lumber company and centered around a steam sawmill capable of cutting 30,000 feet of timber a day, Roper City was located less than a mile from North Landing, a tiny hamlet on the part of the A&C Canal that followed the North Landing River.
For years the lumber company had sent its cypress boards and other lumber up the A&C Canal to Norfolk. By this time, however, most of the company’s sawmills were located on the North Carolina coast, where Roper owned hundreds of thousands of acres of forestlands.
A bargeman’s life may have been reckless and rollicking, but it was also much toil and little sleep. The men rarely drifted very far from the canal. Most ate and slept on their barges.
Tomorrow, part 3: The Monster Ditcher