Friday, March 25, 2011

Pasquatonk, ba-donk ba-donk

Burma Shave!
Today we travelled from Elizabeth City along the Pasquatank River till it became the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.  We've been looking forward to this leg of the trip for a while.  

Heck, just saying the name is fun.  Try it:  "Great Dismal Swamp." There, don't you feel better as you contemplate those piles of snow?

The Great Dismal Swamp Canal predates the Erie Canal (SlowBoat's home) by a good bit. George Washington, a well-known promoter of canals, was strongly in favor of this one, which gave merchant boats a shortcut from North Carolina's (dreaded) Albemarle Sound up to Norfolk and ports on the Chesapeake.

Construction started in 1793.  Much of the work was done by slaves, released from their plantation jobs in the off season. The first boat to float a portion of the canal, in 1805, was a "shingle flat" (which sounds exotic but is simply a flat-bottomed barge loaded with roofing shingles--a popular export product of the region, made from rot-resistant native cypress trees). The 22-mile-long canal (far shorter than the Erie) was completed in 1814, after the British coastal blockade during the War of 1812 made the gummint sit up and take notice how handy the shortcut would be.

Interesting additional facts: The Great Dismal Swamp was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about "the slave in the dismal swamp." Abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe set her lesser-known novel, Dred, in the swamp. (And you can read the full text online!)

In Elizabeth City, we enjoyed a visit with Bill and Nancy
Trout. Bill is the author of The Great Dismal Atlas, a
publication of the VA Canals and Navigations Society.
The Great Dismal Swamp has a Visitor's Center, where happy boaters (like us) can tie up for free.  The scenery is not exactly dismal: Today was sunny, and the bald eagles were common as crows, and the shadbush was busting into bloom and showering us with white petals like snow, only somewhat less cold.

There WAS a cold wind, and we wore three layers of fleece under our windbreakers (not to mention the infamous zebra-striped leggings). I know,  I know, we can't complain. We're not shovelling snow.

As for WHY such a pretty place is called the Great Dismal, we got this answer from George Ramsey, a local authority on the swamp who greeted us personally at the lock at South Mills.  Long ago, people referred to ALL swamps as "dismals."  This one was particularly large, hence "Great Dismal." And after a time, as language changed, folks could no longer be counted on to know that "dismal" equals "swamp," so the Department of Redundancies Department made it "The Great Dismal Swamp."

As we floated today past past bald-cypress trees pushing out their feathery, kelly-green leaves, we could hear the warblers singing in the treetops. We wanted to sing too. (Cue Adkins Trace novelty honkeytonk song:)

That Pasquatank, from bank to bank
It’s a perfect vision
Make ya wanna float along,
Got it goin’ on,
Floating like a swan


The Dismal Swamp, badonk badonk

It’s a perfect vision
Make ya wanna float along,
Got it goin’ on,
Floating like a swan

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