Admiral Ross’s Journey, part 7– The Big Ditch

The lighthouse tender Violet on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

The lighthouse tender Violet on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

This is the last of the 7-part 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.

A final view of the Albemarle & Chesapeake (A&C) Canal from the Violet’s bow.  A pair of the lighthouse tender’s deckhands are sweeping the deck.  Another of the boat’s crewmen, perhaps an engineer or mechanic, gazes at the shoreline and a narrowing of the canal.

The Violet could be leaving Currituck Sound and approaching the canal’s North Carolina Cut, the 5 and ½-long section of the canal that runs from Currituck Sound to the North River.

By the time that then-Commander Ross made this inspection tour of the region’s lighthouses, the A&C Canal’s heyday had already come and gone.

Railroads had been siphoning freight and passengers from the canal for decades.

In addition, at the very end of the 19th century, the Dismal Swamp Canal had once again become an important competitor for freight and passengers in the vicinity of the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Dismal Swamp Canal

Dug largely by hundreds of enslaved laborers between 1793 and 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal had always been a more direct route between Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound.

Dismal Swamp Canal at South Mills, ca. 1900. Courtesy, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill Library.

Dismal Swamp Canal at South Mills, ca. 1900. Courtesy, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill Library

The Dismal Swamp Canal runs 22 miles between the Elizabeth River (a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay) and the Pasquotank River (a tributary of the Albemarle Sound).

Passing along the eastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, the canal runs in a north-south direction through what at that time were some of the most remote swamplands in North America.

From the time that the A&C Canal opened in 1859, vessel captains preferred the A&C over the Dismal Swamp Canal. The old canal had grown outdated, was subject to low water levels during droughts and its narrow banks and multiple locks often slowed traffic to a halt.

The Intracoastal Waterway

That changed in the 1890s, though. A new company, the Lake Drummond Canal and Water Co., purchased the Dismal Swamp Canal and invested in major renovations and improvements between 1896 and 1899.

From A History of Old Point Comfort and Fortress Monroe, Va., from 1608 to January 1st, 1881 (1881)

From A History of Old Point Comfort and Fortress Monroe, Va., from 1608 to January 1st, 1881 (1881)

Those improvements included new, larger locks (and fewer of them) and making the canal deeper and wider.

The A&C Canal was already losing freight and passenger traffic to new railroads. After the improvements in the Dismal Swamp Canal, the A&C Canal’s fortunes declined further.

By 1906 the A&C Canal carried only 95,169 tons of freight, down from a peak of 403,017 tons in 1890. That same year, three times as much freight passed through the Dismal Swamp Canal than passed through the A&C Canal.

The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Co. went bankrupt in 1911. Two years later, the U.S. Government purchased the canal and made it part of the Intracoastal Waterway, the “Big Ditch” that runs 3,000 miles from Boston, Mass., to Brownsville, Tex.

Tax dollars would pay for major new dredging and other improvements, and there would no longer be fees for using the canal.

Today the A&C Canal continues to be part of the Intracoastal Waterway and is the main inland route for commercial shipping and pleasure boats in the vicinity of the Great Dismal Swamp.

You can still watch reversible-head lock gates at work in what’s now Chesapeake, Va.

You can sit on the dock at Coinjock, as I have done, and watch the boats and barges go by, too.

You can also slip a skiff into the canal there in Coinjock, as I once did with my family and a local friend named Wilson Snowden, and disappear into some of the most beautiful swamps and marshes in the world.

-End-

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, AND THANKS

Special thanks above all to Ms. Linda Garey who brought her great-grandfather’s lantern slides to my attention and gave me permission to use them here.  They are a tremendous treasure, and I felt deeply privileged to work with them.

Rear Admiral Ross's images of the A&C Canal are only a small part of an extraordinary collection of more than 2,000 glass lantern slides. Ranging over many different parts of the world, they are remarkable historical documents. He also had a wonderful eye and I find many of them artful and almost all of them beautiful. This is a street scene in Malta. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Rear Admiral Ross’s images of the A&C Canal are only a small part of an extraordinary collection of more than 2,000 glass lantern slides. Ranging over many different parts of the world, they are remarkable historical documents. He also had a wonderful eye and I find many of them artful and almost all of them beautiful. This is a street scene in Malta in July 1902. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

I’m also very grateful to Mike Alford, whom I consult about all topics related to boats and boatbuilding. Mike was the long-time curator of traditional workboats at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. He generously looked at Rear Admiral Ross’s glass slide images and gave me invaluable guidance on the boats and their history.

I would also like to acknowledge a number of excellent books and articles that helped me appreciate Rear Admiral Ross’s lantern slides more fully, as well as one especially important atlas.

They include Clifford R. Hinshaw, Jr.’s article “North Carolina Canals before 1860” in the North Carolina Historical Review (Jan. 1948) and Alexander Crosby Brown’s Juniper Waterway: A History of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, published by the University Press of Virginia for the Mariners Museum and the Norfolk County Historical Society.

I’ve also never written a word about the Great Dismal Swamp without drawing knowledge and inspiration from my friend Bland Simpson’s The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir.

In addition, I want to thank Duncan S. Campbell, who has edited and put on line a copy of the New York Sun’s April 7, 1890 article entitled, “How to Go to Hatteras,” which I quoted more than once.

The Great Dismal Atlas (Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, 1998)

The Great Dismal Atlas (Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, 1998)

Finally I want to acknowledge one very special resource, The Great Dismal Atlas, which was published by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society in 1998. It’s a marvelous compendium of maps, charts, historical information and other material related to the A&C Canal and the other waterways in the vicinity of the Great Dismal Swamp.

I think we would all appreciate our local canals, rivers and other waterways more deeply and understand their history more fully if we had an atlas like this dedicated to them.

One thought on “Admiral Ross’s Journey, part 7– The Big Ditch

  1. Thank you for the series on Admiral Ross’s Journey. It is always a pleasure to learn more about the history of N.C. and the Tidewater area. Well written and documented and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

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