Since our beginnings humans lived close to the water and depended on it for daily sustenance. Trade and settlement were along waterways, which were the highways of the ages.|
Earliest people used dugout canoes, like those raised from Lake Phelps. Native men would make a canoe from one tree using no metal edged tools. After felling a great tree, they hollowed it by putting rosin on one side and setting fire to it. The tree was burned in small sections and the resulting coal scraped out with shells. A large canoe could glide quietly along with twenty men. These activities were reported in a 1584 voyage narrative by Arthur Barlowe, an Englishman who sailed in vessels like the Elizabeth II in Manteo.
The low-lying and sometimes swampy lands have divided and isolated groups for generations. This fact encouraged the Quakers who began settling here in the mid 1600s, as they sought separation and freedom from religious persecution.
Wind and weather complicated travel, while unseen shallows could also bring demise. Lighthouses, life saving stations, and more recently, the Coast Guard are protectors. Canals were dredged for safer routes. Throughout Albemarle history water travel has been critical to economic development. Sail, steam and petroleum products powered the ships. Lumber, crops and other exports were traded for the wealth of the outside world.
Social interactions were possible via creeks, rivers and sounds. Government, religion, court and courtship were all contingent on the weather and the size of your boat, not the wheels and wings we rely upon today.
During the twentieth century the switch from the waterways to highways slowed regional development. Water routes, which gave us such advantage, were replaced by roads which required many expensive bridges. The lag has preserved our beauty, but at a price. One wonders what the next century might bring. Some say communications will change us; travel will get easier; tourism will grow.
We are obliged to those who have worked and continue traditions in and around our waterways. Connections are made through our activities, preserving the Albemarle style shad boat, by interns interviewing watermen, and through such events as the annual Moth Boat Regatta. Participation in water related activities connects us to the generations before us. Remember them when you watch a sunset over a nearby waterway or while at the beach this summer.
Museum of the Albemarle