The Dismal Swamp Canal


ca 1757-1806

IN THE PERIOD following the Revolutionary War the economic outlook was very promising in the central and upper parts of the county. Plank Bridge had been made a port of entry for the region and the resulting maritime activity brought commercial benefits to the entire community adjacent to Sawyers Creek. In the upper end the Dismal Swamp Canal, a spectacular undertaking which was to connect the Elizabeth River in Virginia with the Pasquotank River in North Carolina by traversing Camden, stirred the imaginations of business men as far north as Philadelphia so that the locality in the vicinity of present day South Mills took on the aspects of a real estate boom.

A persistent tradition that the original survey for the waterway was made by George Washington seems hardly justified by existing records. The first individual to suggest such a project, it appears, was Virginia’s indefatigable Governor William Byrd, who mentioned the possibility when he and the North Carolina commissioners were establishing a boundary line between the two states. According to a scholarly article written by Alexander Crosby Brown in 1945, a survey of the possibilities of the vast area known as the Dismal Swamp was made by a company of which George Washington and Gershom Nimmo were members, and Washington considered a canal through the swamp to be impracticable. The prospects of a waterway which would connect the ports of Norfolk and Portsmouth directly with the regions behind the sounds and outer banks continued to appeal to the minds of many, notwithstanding, and in 1784, with Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia as one of the promoters, a through canal was actually proposed. In 1787 the Virginia Legislature passed an act for cutting a navigable watercourse from the Elizabeth River in Virginia to the Pasquotank River in North Carolina, the act to become in force after the General Assembly of the latter state should approve similar legislation. North Carolina formally approved such a bill in 1790.

In order to raise funds with which to carry out the plan, the act authorized a named group of commissioners to receive subscriptions for shares at $250 each. On the nineteenth of September, 1791, solicitors reported the number of shares sold as 241; and on the thirtieth of the same month additional sales of 112 shares were announced, the combined receipts therefore approximating $88,250. Considerable time was consumed in organizing the operating company and obtaining easements and rights of way with the stamp of court approval; hence it was 1793 before digging actually began with hired slave labor, starting at each end.

The excavations were finally connected in 1805 so that flats loaded with shingles and similar products could be poled the whole distance from river to river, but the passageway was probably not more than a muddy ditch for some time to come. The War of 1812, however, made the Federal Government aware of the need for a backdoor route for the transportation of supplies, and work seems to have been renewed since the year 1814 marks the first recorded trip of a vessel other than a shingle flat. In 1826 the waterway was enlarged as a shoal draft ship canal. In 1899 it was extended substantially to its present form.

Only one of the five directors who were named to the board of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company in 1792 was from Camden County, and he was Benjamin Jones. As a matter of fact most of the shares had been purchased by Virginians, and they included many of the commonwealth’s leading men, such as, to name only a few, Patrick Henry, James Madison and John Blair. The seven subscribers from Camden County and the number of shares bought by each were: Joseph Jones, 3; Isaac Gregory, 2; Benjamin Jones, Michael Fennell, John Mason, James Pearce, Fred B. Sawyer, Isaac Stokelie and Polly Stokelie, all one each. There were others in the locality who became owners of stock at a later date.

Jones not only has the distinction of being on the first list of directors of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company; he may also qualify as the most spectacular financier this county has known. In the first place he was our largest landowner, having acquired either by grant or purchase upwards of twelve thousand acres. The census of 1790 reports the number of slaves belonging to him as thirty-six, and this was six more than the next largest slaveowner possessed. His commercial activities were varied. He was associated with Nathaniel Allen in the mercantile business and they had a warehouse, and perhaps a store, at River Bridge, which was the trading and shipping center for the upper end of the county. He bought and sold lands continually, and he was interested in enterprises elsewhere. As a young man he had represented Camden for two terms in the House of Commons, but one can imagine that politics would tend to be tedious to a person of his practical nature.

In addition to his affiliation with the Dismal Swamp Company he was also one of the charter members of the New Lebanon Company, a business venture whose prospects stemmed from the canal project. This company excavated a cross canal which was to be utilized for more convenient transportation of forest products via the Dismal Swamp waterway. Mills were also to be constructed whose power would originate from the reservoir of water impounded in the Dismal Swamp artery. The New Lebanon group attracted investors from far and near, the most noted in the Albemarle country being, perhaps, Thomas Harvey and Colonel John Hamilton. Other outstanding investors were William Aitcheson of Norfolk, and in Philadelphia, John C. Christie and Samuel Bartleson. We do not know just how successful the enterprise was, though we can still see traces of canals dug and mills erected.

In one respect Benjamin Jones is an anomaly in the annals of this county. The space devoted to records of his transactions is larger than that allotted to any other individual, and yet details of his personal life are practically lacking. The status of his estate at the time of his death is a mystery. In his latter years parts of his holdings were sold at public auction in order to satisfy judgments against him, and now and then he mortgaged tracts for varying amounts of money. About the only fact which can be stated concerning his last years is that he died in 1806. Certain it is, however, that he was active in two of the most ambitious enterprises ever undertaken in this county; and because of his activity and of those associated with him, South Mills became the largest village in the Camden and the upper end developed on a prosperous financial basis. Indeed, it is still possible that the Canal and the Dismal Swamp constitute the greatest potential economic assets in this section.

Historically speaking, it is generally overlooked that the Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest artificial waterway still in use in the United States.

Source: Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank By Jesse F. Pugh (1957).

 The Great Dismal Swamp

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