Roanoke River Paddle Trail
On the eastern side of Gates County [Northeastern North Carolina] can be found one of the most unique natural wonders of the world. This is the Great Dismal Swamp. It is still one of the wildest areas in Eastern America. It is thirty-seven miles long and up to twelve miles wide.
Sixty percent of the swamp can be found in North Carolina in the counties of Gates, Perquimans, Camden and Currituck. The remaining forty percent is in Virginia.
Geologists tell us that an ancient sea once extended to the western border of the Great Dismal. Just imagine, there were once waves, sandy beaches and jungle where the swamp now stands. The sea was a result of the melting glaciers of the great ice age.
The swamp is alive with numerous trees, a wide variety of animals, plants (many rare species), birds and poisonous reptiles. An acid water can be found in the swamp. Tradition has it that this water is said to be healthy. It was reported that Blackbeard sailed near the Dismal and filled his barrels with the swamp's water. He would do this so his men would stay healthy on their mission.
To some early explorers the swamp was seen as so dismal that no one could possibly live or survive there. To others it was seen as a place of intrigue and beauty. Young George Washington saw it as a financial opportunity. He believed there were great possibilities for logging and farming in the swamp.
Washington acquired a 5,000 acre share in The Dismal Swamp Land Company (which held 40,000 acres). Along with his brother-in-law they purchased 1100 acres in Perquimans (now Gates county) and the Holly Grove area. He believed the land could be drained and used for farming. There was little profit in this, so he started producing jumpier shingles after the Revolutionary War which proved very profitable.
A canal was dug for use in shipping the shingles and other wood products. The first canal was cut five miles through the Western side of the swamp to Lake Drummond. Tradition goes that Washington had a plantation at Holly Grove and that he fell in a creek on his northward journey around the swamp. After this experience he called the creek "Deep Creek". The Jerico Canal was cut to Lake Drummond and the ten miles to Suffolk, Virginia. It was four feet deep and connected the Tidewater Landing to the Nansemond River and to ocean going vessels.
In 1830 a railroad was laid through part of the Dismal Swamp to haul out the timber, shingles, staves and other wood products to be shipped for sale.
Washington used slave labor for much of his work. If not slave labor; he hired poor whites for very low wages. It was hard and dangerous work. The workers cut trees and moved them to the main camp. They had to move around in the muddy ooze of the swamp, fight the yellow flies, mosquitoes and snakes. The logs or shingles were moved out on timber bogys pulled by oxen or mules to be loaded onto the rail line.
The workers lived in small swamp shacks. This was a small cabin made of jumpier poles. It had a dirt floor covered with shavings from the lumber products. One end of the shack was daubed with mud for building a fire. There was a small opening in the roof to let out the smoke. It was under these conditions the swamp became inhabited by shingle and gutter cutters and lumbermen.
For many years people could find remains of these camps in the swamp. They serve not only as a reminder of the hard work of our ancestors but also as a reminder of the power that the wealthy had over the very poor and the slaves. Today, if you take a walking tour through the Dismal Swamp in the Washington Ditch area, you can still see signs of the old railroad bed. You will also see there are no virgin timbers left in the swamp. This is a result of the endeavors of George Washington and his businessmen.
This article is an excerpt from the book, A Journey In Time, A History of Gates County by Paulette Felton Wester. We'd like to express our appreciation to Ms. Wester for allowing us to share a portion of her book and these photographs, taken at Merchant's Millpond State Park, near the Great Dismal Swamp. Paulette Wester is a historian and lifelong resident of Gates County in Northeastern North Carolina.
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