Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

Cruising into History

Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway General Information

Accommodations including complete supply and repair facilities together with hotels, restaurants, and other attractions are located along the Hampton Roads Ports, the Dismal Swamp Canal, and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. Excellent anchorage and docks are available in Chesapeake, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Bridge and Lock operators in Hampton Roads, Virginia, monitor marine radio channel 13. Additional information on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, including bridge and lock information, can be found at

Dismal Swamp Canal Traveling Information

Maintained to a depth of 6 feet, however, boaters should verify the latest channel conditions. Our locks and bridges have minimum operating staff on duty from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Deep Creek and South Mills Locks normal operating schedule is: openings at 8:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The schedule is subject to change during droughts or adverse weather conditions; call to confer before transiting the canal.

Drawbridges at Deep Creek and South Mills are unmanned and open in conjunction with the lock operating schedule. The lock operator also serves as bridge operator, therefore cannot be in both locations at the same time. Some delays in the opening can be expected, as they will be coordinated with the adjacent locks. Deep Creek Lock and Bridge operators can be reached at (757) 487-0831, the South Mills Lock and Bridge operators can be reached at (252) 771-5906 or marine radio channel 13.

Boats can anchor or moor overnight in canal; limited tie-up facilities are located along the canal.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Visitor Center, built by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, is located near mile marker 28 on the canal. The Visitor Center has a variety of published brochures and pamphlets with information on accommodations and attractions, 150’ dock, canoe/kayak launch, restrooms, vending machines, picnic tables, and grills. Call (252) 771-8333 or visit for additional Visitor Center information.

Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Traveling Information

Maintained to a depth of 12 feet, however, boaters should verify the latest channel conditions. Our lock and bridge have operating staff on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Great Bridge Lock opens on demand, but works in conjunction with the Great Bridge Bridge openings. The schedule is subject to change during adverse weather conditions. The Great Bridge Bridge is operated by the City of Chesapeake. It opens every hour from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and on demand after 7:00 pm. Great Bridge Lock operators can be reached at (757) 547-3311 or marine radio channel 13.

North Landing Bridge opens every hour and half hour from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and on demand at all times for commercial traffic and after 7:00 pm. North Landing Bridge operators can be reached at (757) 482-3081 or marine radio channel 13.

Historic Canals

The Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal form alternative routes along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway between the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. The canals and the rest of the waterway are maintained and cared for by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The AIWW provides pleasure boaters and commercial shippers with a protected inland channel between Norfolk, Virginia and Miami, Florida. The history of these two canals, which contain the only locks along the AIWW, paints a vivid picture of the development of transportation that goes back over two hundred years. It is also a fascinating tale rich in folklore and literature.

The Dismal Swamp and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canals

Great Bridge Reservation and Lock

Over two hundred years ago, as it is today, 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 treacherous Carolina coast to reach further markets through Norfolk. The first to propose the "advantage of making a channel to transport by water-carriage goods from Albemarle Sound into Nansemond and Elizabeth River" was Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia in 1728. He had just returned from making a survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border for the English Crown. During the expedition, he and
his party had to struggle through thedense undergrowth and forests of the great swamp. Byrd, finding the place repulsive, is said to be responsible for the addition of "Dismal" to the name.

Tour boat on the Dismal Swamp Canal Tour Boat on Dismal Swamp Canal

It would be nearly 60 years, following the Revolutionary War, before a canal was begun. The new nation desperately needed good roads connecting the isolated towns and villages with larger cities. If the country was to grow and prosper, an effective means of internal transportation had to be developed. Both George Washington and Patrick Henry felt that canals were the easiest answer and favored a route through the Dismal Swamp. Although Washington was not involved in the canal's construction, he was familiar with the region. He and a group of business "adventurers" owned some 50,000 acres in the Dismal Swamp that they were logging. Washington Ditch, a separate cut through the swamp, was built to transport their timber. The remnants of it are still visible today.

Finally, in 1793, construction began on both ends of the Dismal Swamp Canal. The canal had to be dug completely by hand so progress was slow and expensive. Most of the labor was done by slaves hired from nearby landowners. It is interesting to note that the slaves became so familiar with the swamp during this period that it eventually became a haven for runaways. Later, in the anti-slavery era prior to the Civil War, "Harper's Weekly" artist David Strother visited the area and reported that there were large colonies of runaway slaves in some sections of the swamp. Harriet Beecher Stowe patterned her main character in the novel, "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp," on one of Strother's sketches. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to pen his poem, "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp," based on Stowe's character.

By 1796, the costs of building the canal had far exceeded the projected estimates. The company halted work and began a road to connect the two canal sections. The road was completed in 1802. The famous Irish poet, Sir Thomas Moore, visited the area soon after and immortalized "The Lake of the Great Dismal" in a ballad about a legendary love affair.

The completed canal would eventually open in 1805, twelve years after it was begun. Because it was so shallow, its use was limited to flat boats and log rafts that were manually poled or towed through. Shipments consisted mainly of logs, shingles, and other wood products taken from the swamp's great stands of cedar and juniper. Needless to say, this was a far cry from what farmers, lumbermen and merchants originally envisioned as a regional trade route. Throughout its history, the Dismal Swamp Canal has experienced hard times.

Flowers at the Lock Deep Creek Lock

The owners would give up trying to maintain it, let it fall into disrepair and eventually sell it. The maintenance problems were the result of flaws in the canal's original concept and design. Water levels between its beginnings in Deep Creek and its original end in Joyce's Creek were not correctly measured. This left the canal without an adequate source of water and subject to natural rainfall and drainage conditions. Even with the feeder ditch built to supply water from Lake Drummond, the canal was still dry in periods of low rainfall and drought. The problem remains, even today. To preserve water levels in the federally protected Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the feeder ditch is periodically shut off during dry spells. This prevents the canal from draining waters of the swamp and damaging its fragile ecosystem.

The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States. It is also rich in history and folklore. Visitors and canal navigators travel where famous explorers and presidents have stood and literary greats have been inspired for over two hundred years. For example, astride the two states' border is the site where the infamous "Halfway House" hotel was built in the late 1820's. The hotel was a popular spot for marriages, duels and those escaping the law. Since the hotel was on the state line, this last group simply walked to the other side of the hotel to avoid being captured in either state. It is also said that Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Raven" during one of his stays at the hotel. And, as you follow the canal, you retrace the course of James Adams' Floating Theatre, where Edna Ferber got the idea to write the novel "Showboat" upon which the famous musical is based.

Today, the Dismal Swamp Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic Landmark, and is also noted as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In February 2004, the Dismal Swamp Canal was included in the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. It is maintained by The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a navigational resource along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal

The second headwater canal is the Albemarle and Chesapeake. First authorized in 1772, fifteen years prior to the Dismal Swamp Canal, its early history can be characterized as all "acts" and no action. No less than ten acts were passed in both Virginia and North Carolina over a period of 83 years before construction finally began in 1855.

By that time, however, the Dismal Swamp Canal was firmly established. The state of Virginia owned quite a bit of stock in the canal company and a new canal was viewed as a competitive threat. The man who carefully put the pieces together to begin the canal was Tidewater Virginian, Marshall Parks, Jr. Parks' father had been superintendent and chief engineer of the Dismal Swamp Canal during its first major period of reconstruction in the late 1820's. The younger Parks had also been an official with the Dismal Swamp Company and was thoroughly familiar with the canal's problems. He visualized the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal as the answer to more efficient commercial trade between the two regions. The new canal would be wider and deeper than most of others of its day. Parks planned for it to handle the larger steamers and future growth. It would also have only one lock, instead of the Dismal's then seven, considerably reducing passage time.

Construction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was accomplished by seven steam dredges on floating platforms. Had an attempt been made to dig the canal prior to steam-powered technology, it would have failed. The dredges had to gouge the canal out of low-lying mucky ground, scooping up huge tree trunks and petrified logs that lay beneath the surface. When the canal was finished in 1859, it was an engineering marvel. It consisted of only one lock and two relatively short man-made channels, the Virginia Cut and the North Carolina Cut. The single lock, which balanced lunar tides of the southern branch of the Elizabeth River with the wind driven ones of the North Landing River and Currituck Sound, was 40 feet wide and 220 feet long, the longest along the Atlantic coast and the second largest in the entire U.S. The reversible gate heads, allowing ships to lock up or down depending on water levels, were probably the first of their kind. In addition, four times a day when the levels were equal and the winds favorable, the gates were left open to permit clear passage.

The opening of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal gave the Dismal Swamp Canal serious competition. The two coexisted for fifty-four years, with the Albemarle and Chesapeake carrying most of the traffic. There was only a short period when the older canal stole away a significant amount of the commercial shipping. This occurred in the years following 1899, when the Dismal reopened after being entirely rebuilt at a cost of over one million dollars. The triumph was short-lived, however.

The final blow was delivered when the United States government chose to buy the Albemarle and Chesapeake in 1913. Both canals were considered for purchase, along with building one of the two new routes, as part of the government's plan to establish a continuous inland waterway as provided for in the River and Harbor Act of 1910. The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal had defaulted on a bank loan and was sold at foreclosure in 1910. Three years later it sold for only half a million dollars.

Following the sale, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went to work making improvements, and the Albemarle and Chesapeake was made toll free. For the next sixteen years, in a reversal of roles, the Dismal Swamp Canal wavered on the edge of bankruptcy. Finally, in 1929, the government also purchased the Dismal in an act of fairness.

East Coast Map

Today, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal is traveled mostly by commercial craft while the Dismal Swamp Canal is frequented by recreational boaters. As a suggestion, try making a two-day trip: up one canal and down the other with an overnight stay in Elizabeth City. This friendly city on the narrows of the Pasquotank River is also an historical treasure. Its location near the Dismal Swamp Canal makes it the major southern trans-shipment point for cargoes heading to and from the Chesapeake Bay along the canal. While there, be sure to stop at the Mariner's Wharf city docks for a visit with the famous Rose Buddies, the town's self-appointed welcoming committee for visiting cruisers. The city's historical district is a short walk from the docks.

AIWW Information from Other Districts

Information similar to that contained in this brochure may be obtained for other portions of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway by addressing the following Districts of the Corps of Engineers.

Section of Waterway


Carolina State Line,
Beacon No. 63,
North Landing River

Little River,
South Carolina

Wilmington District
Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 1890
Wilmington, NC 28402-1890

Wilmington District Map

Click on the Image

Little River,
South Carolina

South Carolina

Charleston District
Corps of Engineers
69-A Hagood Avenue
Charleston, SC 29403-5107

Charleston District Map

Click on the Image

South Carolina


Savannah District
Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 889
Savannah, GA 31402-0889

Savannah District Map

Click on the Image


Key West,

Jacksonville District
701 San Marco Blvd
Jacksonville, FL

Savannah District Map

Click on the Image

Historical Time Line: Dismal Swamp Canal

1728 Colonel William Byrd II first proposes a canal.   1878 Company is nearly bankrupt, canal deteriorates, and assets are sold.

Virginia authorizes canal construction.

  1892 Lake Drummond Canal & Water Company takes over.
1790 North Carolina authorizes canal construction. The Dismal Swamp Canal Company begins digging. The causeway road opens, eventually becoming U.S. 17.   1896 -

Major improvements made, locks cut to two. The United States Government is in the process of establishing a toll-free inland waterway along the East Coast.
1793 The Dismal Swamp Canal Company begins digging.   1913 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes over the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.
1805 The full length of the canal opens.   1925

Congress authorizes purchase of Dismal Swamp Canal.


The Feeder Ditch supplying water is cut. Number of locks is expanded from two to five or six.

  1929 Purchase is finally made for the same price as the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, $500,000.
1814 A 20-ton decked vessel passes for the first time. President James Monroe visits. Canal built connecting Dismal Swamp to Northwest River and Currituck Sound. Some remnants still exist.   1933 Canal Dredged to 50 feet wide, 9 feet deep.
1818 President James Monroe visits.   1933 -

New U.S. 17 drawbridges completed at Deep Creek and South Mills.
1820 Canal built connecting Dismal Swamp to Northwest River and Currituck Sound. Some remnants still exist.   1935 New Control spillway built on feeder ditch.
1827 -

Canal widened and deepened. Locks converted from wood to stone. President Andrew Jackson visits. Lake Drummond Hotel, the "Halfway House," opens.   1940 -

New concrete and steel locks built at Deep Creek and South Mills.
1843 Gilmerton Canal , no longer in use, is made north of Deep Creek.   1974 Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge established by Congress. Navigational needs of the canal are made secondary to water conservation needs of the swamp.

Turner’s Cut completed, eliminating twists of Joyce’s Creek.

  1988 Dismal Swamp Canal placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is also noted as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal opens

  2000 Deep Creek Lock chamber dewatered and major repairs performed to the lock and gates.
1861 -

Civil War takes toll on both canals. Ships sunk in Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal to block.   2004 Dismal Swamp Canal included in the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
1866 Passenger service starts on Dismal Swamp Canal.      

Historical Time Line: Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal


Virginia passes the original act authorizing the canal.

  1862 Both Confederate and Union forces sink ships in North Carolina Cut to blockade the canal.

Two separate feasibility and cost studies made on canal routes.

  1865 -

Great Bridge Lock closed for three months due to leakage.
1776 Revolutionary War delays action.   1873 New iron gates replace wooden ones at Great Bridge.

Construction begins on the Dismal Swamp Canal, eliminating the immediate need for the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.


First suggestions made that the federal government take over the canal, make improvements and provide an inland waterway.
1809 Another act passed in Virginia incorporating “The Great Coastwise Canal and River Navigation Company” to cut the canal. .   1913 United States buys Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal for $500,000 as part of its inland waterway plans. Lock gates removed at Great Bridge to allow passage of larger ships.

The War of 1812 delays further action.


New lock, built by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, opens.

1812 -


Numerous acts passed establishing companies and enabling construction. Lack of interest and funds caused further delays.

  1992 Great Bridge Lock Area bulkheads and fender systems upgraded.
1855 Construction begins at last.   2004

Great Bridge Bridge replaced and operations taken over by the City of Chesapeake.

1859 Canal is completed and steamboat service begins. Plans are already underway to deepen the canal from six to eight feet.   2004 Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal placed on National Register of Historic Places

The Corps of Engineers and Navigation

Established in the earliest days of our nation as part of the Continental Army, the Army engineers blazed trails for westward migration and cleared waterways and harbors for commerce. Today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is engaged in flood control, hydropower production, shore protection and restoration, water supply, disaster assistance, fish and wildlife management, recreation and navigation projects such as the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Corps facilities are carefully planned to promote the use of project land and water while conserving the natural environment. Many areas are maintained in as close to their natural state as possible, consistent with the purposes of the project.

Protect Your Waterways

While navigating the canal, boaters should have both bow and stern lines ready when going through the locks. They should also reduce their speed so that no wake is produced while approaching, motoring through and leaving the locks, bridge structures, and traveling the canals. Complete guidelines are available from the addresses listed on the reverse. Violations are subject to citation and federal laws. Corps recreation areas belong to you and all Americans. You can help take care of your public lands and waters in many ways. Observe rules designed for your safety and for the protection of the project and its natural resources. Remember to be alert to natural hazards such as submerged stumps, logs or rocks. Enjoy yourself and have a safe visit.

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