Admiral Ross’s Journey, part 6: Steamers & Fish Barrels

A steamer on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

A steamer on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

This is part 6 of a series I’m doing this week based on an extraordinary collection of magic lantern glass 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 Rear Admiral Albert Ross’s next magic lantern glass slide, we find his vessel, the lighthouse tender Violet, approaching a rear paddlewheel steamer on one of the rivers that make up the Albemarle & Chesapeake (A&C) Canal– either the Elizabeth River, North Landing River or the North River. We might just barely be able make out the captain and mate in the boat’s pilothouse.

By 1901, steamers were a common sight on the region’s rivers, sounds and canals. The first steamers had appeared in the 1820s and the number of steamers had grown steadily over the rest of the century.

Using the A&C Canal, those steamers bound even the most remote coastal villages and backwoods logging camps in Currituck County, N.C., to Norfolk, Va. and, via Norfolk’s rail connections, to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Norfolk and Currituck Sound

A vessel named the Currituck was typical of the steamers that plied the waters of the A&C Canal. Odds are it is not the steamer shown on this glass slide, but the Currituck resembled this vessel and I found especially good historical accounts related to its service between Norfolk and Currituck Sound.

"Map of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal" (Lindenkohl & Lindenkohl, 1885). Courtesy North Carolina Collection, UNC Library, Chapel Hill, N.C.

“Map of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal” (Lindenkohl & Lindenkohl, 1885). Courtesy North Carolina Collection, UNC Library, Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Currituck was a 115-ft. long, rear paddle wheeler of shallow draft. It had two decks, most certainly a saloon (or two) and usually carried freight on the bottom deck and passengers on the top deck.

Some of the canal’s steamers had staterooms that Currituck Sound merchants and grocery brokers used for their weekly trips to buy goods in Norfolk.

Wealthy sportsmen also traveled frequently on those steamers. They caught the Currituck in Norfolk, after traveling from New York by train, and took the steamer to hunting lodges on Currituck Sound.

A little explanation: after New Currituck Inlet (the only inlet through Currituck Banks at the time) closed in the period 1828-30, the communities on Currituck Sound were cut off from the sea. Sailing vessels from as far away as New England and the West Indies had previously visited the local wharves, but all that ended.

The closing of New Currituck Inlet also meant that saltwater from the Atlantic could no longer reach Currituck Sound. In the following decades, Currituck Sound had turned into a freshwater sea.

That loss of New Currituck Inlet was devastating for commerce and for saltwater fishing in Currituck Sound, but local people gradually adapted to the ecological upheaval.

Migratory waterfowl populations soon found Currituck Sound’s new freshwater marshes. In time, the size of the flocks of ducks and geese wintering on those waters grew to the point that contemporary observers often described them as darkening the sky.

As a result, market waterfowl hunting and sport hunting became one of the most important parts of Currituck County’s economy.

To Poplar Branch and Back

Owned by the Bennett Line in Norfolk, the Currituck had a schedule that was also typical of the steamer traffic between Norfolk and Currituck Sound. It left Norfolk three times a week at 8 o’clock in the evening and made a stop at Great Bridge, Va. (where the canal’s only lock was).

Northern pintail taking flight at the Pine Island Sanctuary on Currituck Sound.Photo by Mark Buckler. Courtesy, N.C. Audubon Society

Northern pintail taking flight at the Pine Island Sanctuary on Currituck Sound.Photo by Mark Buckler. Courtesy, N.C. Audubon Society

Entering the A&C Canal, the Currituck continued through the Virginia Cut and into the North Landing River and made stops at four villages on Currituck Sound. It picked up passengers and freight at Knotts Island, Churches Island, Narrow Shores and Poplar Branch, then headed back north toward Norfolk.

Reflecting on the early 20th century, the Currituck’s last captain, Ernest L. Ballance, reminisced that he carried mostly potatoes and freshwater fish on his northward runs to Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va. In those towns, his cargo was offloaded onto rail cars and sent to Baltimore and New York City.

“Some nights we would handle as many as 500 barrels of potatoes and 75 barrels of fish,” Capt. Ballance recalled.

* * *

Tomorrow, the last installment of my series on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal—The Big Ditch

 

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