Norfolk and the Great Dismal Swamp Canal

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Our early am trip through Norfolk was the complete opposite of yesterday’s adventure. The water was calm, the Naval activity was silent and the channel markers were clear!

We were headed to North Carolina, through the Great Dismal Swamp. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, or who didn’t follow our previous blog, here’s a brief history, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“In the Colonial period, water transportation was the lifeblood of the North Carolina sounds region and the Tidewater areas of Virginia. The landlocked sounds were entirely dependent upon poor overland tracks or shipment along the treacherous Carolina coast to reach further markets through Norfolk, Virginia.

In May 1763, George Washington made his first visit to the Great Dismal Swamp. He suggested draining it, and digging a north-south canal through to connect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. As the first president, Washington agreed with Virginia Governor Patrick Henry that canals were the easiest answer for an efficient means of internal transportation, and urged their creation and improvement.

In 1784, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created, and work was started in 1793. The canal was dug completely by hand. with most of the labor was done by slaves  hired from nearby landowners. It took approximately 12 years of back-breaking construction under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which opened in 1805.

Tolls were charged for the canal’s maintenance and improvements, and in 1829, the channel was deepened. The waterway was an important route of commerce in the era before railroads and highways became major transportation modes.

We were timed perfectly to be at the first lock for the 11:00am opening, when we came upon a railroad bridge that was down (closed). A long train slowly moved forward, then stopped….then slowly backed up…and finally slowly moved off of the bridge. Ok…we were still on schedule, if we pushed it a bit. As we came around a corner to pass under a highway bridge, we found that the railroad bridge next to it was down.

After hailing them on the radio, we were told that they were awaiting a train. We waited…and waited….and finally the train came and passed. Then we waited….and waited….and waited for the bridge to lift. In the meantime, Scott had me call the lock, to let them know that we were trying for the 11am opening, but were being held up. Robert, our favorite lock keeper (whom we had met on our previous cruise south), told us not to worry, that we  had plenty of time and that he would be ready for us. Finally, the bridge lifted, and we were on our way.

We got to the lock at 11:04. Robert had the gate open, and was ready to help us tie to the wall. The gist of “locking through”: come through a gate, tie to poles that are quite a bit above you (hence, the help from Robert) and the gate closes behind you. Water fills the area, until you are at ground level and the gates ahead open, for you to continue on.

Just as Robert was closing the gate behind us to fill the lock, a sailboat showed up (another victim of the railroad bridge, I’m sure), so he opened the gate to let them in also. This is still a slow time of year for Robert. In six weeks or so, when the mainstream of boaters head south, both us and the sailboat would have been out of luck.

The lock fills much slower than you’d think, giving us time to chat with Robert, and the couple on the sailboat that were tied up behind us. Once we were at ground level, Robert entertained us with a tune on the conch shell. Boaters bring him all sorts of conchs, on their way north, and he can play almost all of them. He gave us a quick lesson on the types of conch shells (complete with visuals), and then opened the forward gate for us to pass through.

About a quarter mile after the lock is a lift bridge, that Robert also operates. Once he opens the gate to let boats out, he jumps in his car and drives to the bridge, to open it. Quite an active job! It was nice to see him again, after seven years. He makes the Dismal even more neat!

We traveled about three and a half hours through the canal, and stopped at the North Carolina visitor center, because we wouldn’t make the second lock in time for it’s last opening. The words visitor center are a stretch, as it’s basically a rest stop….but maybe a rest stop on steroids. Cars stop off of the road, and boats can tie up on the canal side. There is water available, a book swap and dumpsters for trash. Across the canal, accessed by a small lift bridge, is the Dismal Swamp National Park. There are free bikes to use along the trails, and you can also rent kayaks and canoes to use in the canal….ok, maybe it is a visitor center.

Howard was itching to get some fresh air, so we took him for a few walks along the canal bank. Scott chatted with the couple that locked in with us, who were now tied up behind us for the night.

Tomorrow, we plan to do a long day out of the canal, past Elizabeth City, NC, across the Albemarle Sound and into the Alligator River, where we’ll anchor for the night. Here are some photos of today’s travels.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

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