This is part 3 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 this lantern slide, a pair of deckhands stand on the lighthouse tender Violet’s bow as they pass a pair of lumber barges. You couldn’t find a more typical image of maritime life in that part of southeastern Va. or in the Albemarle section of N.C. at the turn of the 20th century.
Look at the shoreline: they are passing through one of North America’s largest swamp forests and the business of the times was the cutting, removing and milling of that forest and the shipping of it to distant parts.
A seemingly endless procession of barges, rafts, flatboats and schooners full of the Great Dismal Swamp’s forests passed up the A&C Canal and the other waterways that led out of the swamp.
The swamps’ lumber became the frames and walls of homes and businesses throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, as well as the hulls of ships, railroad ties and much else. Its cedar and cypress shingles made roofs, and its staves made the barrels that carried the region’s salt fish, waterfowl and farm produce to markets in Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Hundreds of square miles of remote wilderness surround the crews of the Violet and the lumber barges in this image.
That territory was a great sodden expanse, broken up only by timber camps and little creekside hamlets, the odd shingle mill and the cottages of recluses such as the band of Indians at the head of Indiantown Creek and the Mennonites that came a few years later to Pudding Ridge.
Building the Canal
A private company, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Co., built the canal between 1855 and 1859, just before the Civil War.
Unlike southern canals constructed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, enslaved laborers did not build the A&C Canal by hand, using only shovels, axes and mattocks to excavate the canal bed and hack their way through forests and thick layers of matted roots and stumps.
(You can find a description of that work in my book The Waterman’s Song.)
Mainly enslaved laborers did build the A&C Canal, but they did not do so by hand. Instead, they formed the crews on nine great steam dredges. “The monster ditcher,” Edmund Ruffin called one of them.
A famous agronomist and planter, Ruffin was a wretched soul who, after the Civil War, killed himself rather than live without slaves.
He did however make important contributions in the field of agronomy, particularly in his 1832 essay on calcareous manures.
Ruffin also left us a lengthy description of the construction of the A&C Canal in an 1861 book called Agricultural, Geological and Descriptive Sketches of Lower North Carolina.
Here he describes the steam dredges at work:
The obstacles could delay, but could not prevent the effectual operation of the machine. The living roots of great size were gradually loosened and finally torn out. The stumps are undermined by the scoop cutting beneath the main roots and then lifted up. However such obstructions may retard the progress of the work, nothing can effectually resist or defeat the monster ditcher. The thrusting out of the beam, its sundry changes of position suited to every required effort, the seizing and tearing up of the roots and earth, and finally the slow stretching out of the enormous arm and emptying of its hand—all moved by the unseen power of steam—made the whole operation seem as if it was the manual labor of a thinking being of colossal size of inconceivable physical power.
When the nine crews of dredge boatmen finished the job in 1859, the canal was 8 feet deep in the channel and ranged from 30 to 60 feet in width. In later decades, other dredge men widened and deepened the canal.
The End of the Age of Sail
From the beginning, the A&C Canal was designed for steam-powered vessels. This was something new.
Prior to the advent of steam navigation, canal builders placed towpaths on both banks of a canal. In many cases, horses, mules or oxen, led by handlers, would trod those towpaths and pull the vessels or rafts of logs through the canal.
In many other cases, men (usually enslaved laborers) would pull boats and log rafts through a canal without the benefit of draft animals.
Whether men or beasts were doing the hard work, they guided boats and rafts down the canal either with tethers or long poles.
This was not at all impractical, as one might think: many of the early ship canals were no wider than a broad ditch and a man walking on either bank could extend a pole into the middle of the canal.
The A&C Canal had no towpath, however. It marked a new day: instead of vessels being pulled along the canal, they passed up and down the canal under the power of their own steam engines or, as with the sailing vessels in the photograph above, steam tugboats led them through the canal.
Tomorrow, part 4: The Lighthouse Tender Violet