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When it was constructed in the early 1790s, the Dismal Swamp Canal served as a vital commercial route between Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The 22-mile canal snakes along the eastern border of the Great Dismal Swamp connecting the Albemarle Sound with the Chesapeake Bay. Notable Americans throughout history - including George Washington - have recognized the Dismal Swamp Canal's importance to the region and the country.
George Washington was one of the canal's first supporters and among five private investors in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, which started construction on the canal in 1793. Historically, a number of small towns flourished along the canal's banks, benefiting from its commerce. Today, only South Mills remains.
The hand-dug waterway's colorful past has endured periods of both prosperity and neglect. In 1862 during the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp Canal strategically functioned as an alternate supply route for the Confederacy. Using the waterway, Confederate troops were able to bypass Union blockades along the N.C. coast until Union forces eventually captured the canal later that year.
The canal - and the surrounding area - have also been identified as a station along the Underground Railroad. Unknown numbers of freedom seekers sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp's thick cover and along the canal's banks.
The canal became part of the Intracoastal Waterway in 1929 and is currently maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The historic waterway has been in service for more than 200 years making it the nation's oldest, continuously operating waterway.
The Dismal Swamp Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a National Civil Engineering Landmark and noted on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Points of interest along the canal's route include locks, landings and hand-dug ditches dating back to the early 1800s.
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