Proposed as early as 1730 by Col. William Byrd II, the Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States, extending 22 miles with a lock on each end. Part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, this historic inland route connects the Albemarle Sound in NC to the Chesapeake Bay in VA.
The canal was hand dug by hired enslaved labor and opened to navigation in 1805 after twelve years of backbreaking work under highly unfavorable conditions. African Americans made up thirty percent of the watermen in Camden County in the 1790s and were a common sight on local waterways. Moses Grandy, born into slavery in Camden County in 1786, became interested in maritime occupations as a young boy. As a result of his skills as a river ferryman, canal boatman, and lighter captain, he became known as Captain Grandy. A successful waterman, Moses attempted to purchase his freedom three times, but twice was cheated out of his earnings and release. Finally, in 1827 Captain Minner purchased Moses and allowed him to live as a free man.
Captain Grandy sailed to London in the 1840s, meeting with abolitionist George Thompson, who penned Grandy’s life story. Proceeds from Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy; Late a Slave in the United States were used to help liberate Grandy’s enslaved relatives. Grandy’s story and other slave narratives were used by anti-slavery movements in the US and Britain to demonstrate the cruelty of slavery. Moses recounted his story throughout his travels and addressed the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
Today, the canal is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and enjoyed by pleasure boaters navigating the ICW as well as recreational paddlers. The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center offers a variety of information on the canal from past to present, along with a selection of publications available for purchase. Interpretive panels are located on the east side of the canal and the Dismal Swamp State Park, adjacent to the property. Free National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Passports and Cancellation stamps are available at this site.