It was the mid-1930’s, at the business end of the last Great Depression, that a young, not quite gainfully employed naval architect named Howard Chapelle signed up for a job with the WPA. Everyone needed work, and the government was creating jobs and funding them as fast as anybody could think of them. Someone in FDR’s administration came up with an idea to put the nations destitute naval architects to work. It was to be called the “Historic American Merchant Marine Survey/” Along with a lot of other projects that came out of the WPA, it would turn out to be an incredibly valuable storehouse of historic documents; though, with humble beginnings and a short life, it’s eventual cultural value would not be evident for quite some time. Of the two largest work programs created by FDR – the CCC and the WPA – it was this one, the WPA, that received harsh criticism as wasteful and unnecessary, particularly from the conservative opposition.
Spillway between Lake Drummond and the Feeder Ditch
It’s Spring Break for the girls. Emily is already in Spain for the start of a 10 day trip with her AP History class. Terri has a new job, and is staying close to home. Amanda and I decided to use the time off and take a little trip I’ve been wanting to take for some time, swinging down through the marshy parts of Virginia and Carolina, then on to Ocracoke Island. First stop: the Great Dismal Swamp.
This place has always fascinated me. Though criss-crossed with canals and drained to a fraction of its former size, the Swamp once covered all of southeast Virginia, and a full third of eastern North Carolina all the way from the fall line to the coast. My grandmother’s family settled here in the 1700’s, in places with names like Gum Neck and Frying Pan, and I grew up on stories of ancestors hunting black bear and wildcats deep in the swamp, and of ghost stories, and people disappearing in a black water wilderness. This was a chance to pass on some of those stories, and to see where they actually took place.
We brought the boat and the stealthy electric motor, so the three mile cruise along the canals and “ditches” from the boat ramp into the middle of the swamp was a quiet glide.
The boat launch is on the eastern side of Dismal Swamp Canal, which connects the Chesapeake Bay with Albemarle Sound down in North Carolina, separating the easternmost counties of both states from the mainland, making them all essentially a big island. This presents a problem for people who live on the west side of the Canal, because the road is on the east side. We saw one farmer’s solution in action: He had built a small ferry of oil drums and plywood and, with a cable running slack along the bottom from one side to the other, we saw him pull himself across, hand over hand, to where he kept his car on the other side.
From the Canal, the Feeder Ditch strikes a rhumb line due West for two miles into the heart of the swamp to Lake Drummond. It’s a strangly euclidian path through a completely chaotic canyon of wilderness, confusing your perception of time and distance. The experience is more than a little surreal.