Angle to Key West: Locking the Dismal Swamp (5/25)


Chesapeake, VA – May 25, 2013

The oldest thing in this country with George Washington’s name on it isn’t a road or a monument. It isn’t a building or a park. Not a city or a state. It’s a ditch in the Dismal Swamp.

“It’s about 14 food wide, 4 foot deep, several miles long,” the man said. “But we’re very proud to have it. It was dug in 1760 making it the oldest known structure to bear George Washington’s name. It may just be a big ditch today, but in a lot of ways it’s the original Washington Monument.”

When he started talking he was only a few feet above me, but now he looked like a shadow standing on a tall wall. His voice boomed down to replace the water emptying out of the lock.

I hated locks on the Mississippi. Seventeen feet of plastic is an odd fit in a thousand foot lock designed for giant tugboats and huge diesel engines. I felt like an intruder passing through a giant machine meant for something else. I counted down the twenty-nine locks and cheered the moment the last doors opened and I slipped out to the Lower Mississippi.

That cold November day in Missouri feels like a long time ago, but I remember that feeling of being an intruder, so I try to be as polite a guest as possible.

“I don’t mind waiting for those other boats if it’s easier for you,” I told the man as I paddled through the open doors of the Deep Creek Lock at the northern end of the Dismal Swamp.

A pair of boats were on the radio calling in and hoping to get through before the lock closed for the day. The man just shook his head and smiled down at me.

“Nope, you’re on time and in the lock now and that makes you my responsibility,” he said. “They can wait for you instead.”

The doors shut, water started to drain, and in a few minutes, I heard how George Washington was president of the Dismal Swamp Land Company thirty years before he was president of the United States; how it took twelve years (1793-1805) to hand dig and shovel the canal; how Confederates used to run goods through the canal to avoid Union ships along the coast; how the C.S.S. Appomattox got stuck and burned fleeing Union ships because it was a few inches too wide; how the original canal had more locks and rose another ten feet high and you can still see the height of it in the tall banks I’d paddled through; how the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal competed for customers until the U.S. bought the Albermarle and Chesapeake Canal and made it free to use; how the Dismal Swamp Canal went bankrupt a few years later because it’s hard to compete with free and the U.S. bought it too; how all kinds of boats and crafts–from fine sailboats to handmade rafts–have passed through that canal on trips to every corner of the world; and how ships used to stock barrels of the swamp water for long voyages because the tannin in it kept it from spoiling.

“I could literally babble for the next two days, but this would probably go a lot better if you asked questions and I answered them,” he said. “So what do you want to know?”

“Well what’s your name?” I shouted up at him.

“I’m Robert, I’m the Lock Master here,” he said.

I sunk lower, Robert told more stories, and I hoped low tide would give me a few extra feet to listen.

5 thoughts on “Angle to Key West: Locking the Dismal Swamp (5/25)

  1. Somewhere on that lock’s starboard wall (southbound) we wrote the name of our boat and the date we passed through… Robert came over to us and emphatically stated… get out your checkbook, that’s a one-thousand dollar fine! My heart sank through my chest. What seemed like an eternity later, but was probably just a matter of seconds, Robert burst out laughing… That gets them every time, he said… Go ahead and scribble all you want… laughing all the way back to his lock house…

  2. Lovely! Never knew the Great Surveyor was President of the Dismal Swamp Land Company, too. He was quite an entrepreneur! Glad you took the easy way from NC.

  3. How DO you find out about these passages, Daniel? I’ve never heard of that canal,…and just learned about the Ocheechobee Canal across Florida. Fascinating!

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