The Diamond Shoals — those were the problem for ships trading between Virginia and North Carolina. The Dismal Swamp Canal — initially completed in 1805, then expanded and fully operational
The Diamond Shoals — those were the problem for ships trading between Virginia and North Carolina. The Dismal Swamp Canal — initially completed in 1805, then expanded and fully operational by 1829 — provided an inland route from Norfolk to Albemarle Sound without having to brave the treacherous ocean waters around Cape Hatteras. Not until the congressional Rivers and Harbors Act of 1909, though, did a viable modern commercial route — what would eventually become the Intracoastal Waterway — begin to take shape.
With the creation of the ICW, the Dismal Swamp Canal became one of two routes south — along with the more heavily traveled Virginia Cut — into our state’s waters. In North Carolina, the ICW runs for 300 miles — now part of a 3,000-mile route reaching from Boston to Key West and then around the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville, Texas.
The Dismal Swamp Canal passes South Mills, site of a Civil War battle between some 4,000 soldiers, and connects to the Pasquotank River, which carries boaters to Elizabeth City, home of the Museum of the Albemarle and walking tours focused on the Civil War and industry. In Waterfront Park, a stop along the Network to Freedom commemorates Elizabeth City’s role in the Underground Railroad.
The ICW was created for protection of commercial vessels — from the stormy seas off Hatteras and, later, U-boats during World War II — and also for connection between Virginia and North Carolina, and eventually the whole Eastern Seaboard. The North Carolina section was built in stages — the first connecting Norfolk, Virginia, to Beaufort. East of the Dismal Swamp Canal, a second route took shape, connecting Currituck Sound to the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal at Coinjock to the North River, and thus to Albemarle Sound — where it meets up with the Dismal Swamp route.
From there, the consolidated channel continues into the Alligator River and the Pungo River-Alligator River Canal, the longest of five land cuts, then to Belhaven — billed as “the birthplace of the ICW” because it was the last link in the Norfolk-Beaufort route, opened in 1928. The Pungo River carries boaters south across the Pamlico River into the Goose Creek Game Land passage, then into the Bay River, then Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River to Oriental, a sailboat haven. Adams Creek flows south to the back door of Beaufort — its inlet guarded by Fort Macon, a stunning Civil War-era masonry fortress.
The ICW proceeds southwest as a fairly straightforward channel, past Swansboro, Camp Lejeune, Sneads Ferry, Topsail Island, and Wilmington, until it takes a hard right through Snow’s Cut into the Cape Fear River and down to Southport.
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Unlike a river, which flows from its headwaters in an ever-maturing evolution — from brash and bumptious rapids to a wider, more stately flow, and finally to a broad ship channel — the ICW has as many tidal flows as the inlets it serves, as many currents as the rivers and creeks that gush into it from the hinterlands. It can be as calm as sun-glazed glass or roiled with wind-driven whitecaps and breaking seas.
The ICW is both natural in its often breathtaking beauty and also engineered for use — a highway for watercraft that connects natural sounds, creeks, rivers, inlets, estuaries, and back marshes by a continuous dredged and buoyed channel. The ICW can range from a few dozen feet wide (Dismal and Pungo canals) to 400 feet (the Cape Fear River channel) or even thousands (the estuary heading into Southport).
The ICW is a watery interstate route, with “offramps” that can lead travelers to communities such as Bath — the oldest incorporated town in the state, once home to the pirate Blackbeard — islands such as Ocracoke, and a variety of havens in adjoining waters along the way, with many first-rate seafood restaurants and deep layers of history.
ICW traffic is largely recreational now but also includes barges, commercial fishing boats, U.S. Marine Corps AmTracs from Camp Lejeune, and, in the ocean-bound channels of Cape Fear and Beaufort-Morehead City, pilot boats, tugs, ferries, naval patrol boats, Coast Guard vessels, research vessels, and container ships that dwarf the Titanic.
The ICW always has one face toward the land and one face toward the ocean.
Take a Tour
Cruising into the Beaufort harbor, boaters cross historical paths with pirates such as Blackbeard, who reportedly anchored his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, off the old waterfront and tarried ashore at the three-centuries-old Hammock House — so named because it stands on a small “hammock,” or hill, overlooking the inlet. The strip of ramshackle fish houses fronting the harbor underwent a transformation in the 1970s. Now, the waterfront is a lively scene of shops and open-air restaurants, many of them resounding with live music during the summer months.
Constructed of masonry from 1826 to 1834 to guard Beaufort — then called Old Topsail — Inlet, the fort was garrisoned by Confederate troops at the start of the Civil War, then captured by U.S. Army forces after a severe bombardment. It became North Carolina’s second state park in 1924, opening to the public in 1936, then was briefly reactivated as a military base during the U-boat threat of World War II.
One of two commercial ports in the state, Morehead City was named for John Motley Morehead, a former governor. He established the Shepard Point Land Company with 600 acres on a deep-water channel, connected to the interior by the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad, of which he was a strong promoter. Beginning in the 1880s, the railroad brought summer visitors to the swank Atlantic Hotel, until it burned down in 1933. By then, the city was well-established as a tourist destination, as well as a busy port and fishery. More than 90 buildings cluster in Morehead City’s historic district, including five churches of both white and African American congregations.
During colonial times, Edmund Ennet operated a ferry across the New River on the post road between Suffolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina — over which a dispatch rider carried news of the Battle of Lexington in April 1775. The town is named for Robert Snead, a lawyer who made his home here in 1791 and who was infamous for killing a Revolutionary War hero named Col. George W. Mitchell — a murder for which he was convicted, then pardoned by the governor. For generations, the community has thrived on commercial fishing. A high-rise bridge connects it to Camp Lejeune.
On a warm day, my wife, Jill, and I treat ourselves to lunch on the deck of Dockside restaurant, an institution in Wrightsville Beach since 1984. It’s an informal place of outdoor tables shaded by umbrellas, an indoor canvas-roofed pavilion, an air-conditioned dining room, and a bar, located right on the ICW, just a few hundred yards south of the drawbridge that carries tourists and residents to Wrightsville Beach. We watch two dolphins swimming in with the tide from Motts Channel, the curving cut that connects with Banks Channel — a favorite anchorage for sailboats plying the ICW north in the summer and south in the fall and winter — and which intersects the ICW right in front of Dockside. In the sun-dappled water, rippled by a southeasterly breeze, the dolphins arc and dive, back and forth, as if aware that they are putting on a show.
Upriver from Snow’s Cut lies Wilmington, once a busy cotton port and now home to UNC Wilmington, which offers a world-class marine science program. Today, the Cotton Exchange is just one of a phalanx of historic buildings renovated into shops and restaurants. The Riverwalk stretches nearly the length of downtown, anchored on the Northeast Branch by several new marinas and the Live Oak Bank Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue. The south end culminates at Chandler’s Wharf — and more riverfront dining. The USS North Carolina, permanently moored across the river on Eagle’s Island and served by water taxi, reminds visitors that this is an officially designated World War II City for its role in building a fleet of Liberty Ships; billeting garrisons of soldiers, sailors, and Coast Guard; and providing three German prisoner-of-war camps.
I’m steering my Beneteau sloop through Snow’s Cut, a channel dredged through the “haulover” that connects the Cape Fear River to the Intracoastal Waterway. The engine won’t start, so we’re under sail alone.
The turn into Snow’s Cut is tricky — a shallow, narrow passage delineated by a series of red and green daymarks on pilings. The cut was designed to be just 90 feet wide — though, these days, erosion has scoured it to almost 400.
The tide rushes into Snow’s Cut from the ocean side, so while we had the tide with us coming upriver, now it is dead against us. This is exactly what worried Maj. William Snow of the Army Corps of Engineers, charged with digging the cut in 1929. He and others feared that the out-of-sync tidal flows would render the cut too treacherous — so the Corps budgeted half a million dollars to construct a tidal lock on the river end to ensure safe passage. But when the cut opened in 1930, to everyone’s surprise, the lock wasn’t needed.
Shadowed by the high bluffs of Snow’s Cut, the wind is slackening. I can see and hear the water rushing past the bow, and the sails are full of wind, pushing the 32-foot boat ahead into the tidal flow.
Until they are exactly balanced. We are sailing very fast. We are standing still.
Our position relative to either bank doesn’t change an inch — for minutes, then half an hour. Then, as the incoming tide slackens just a bit, I can feel the hull begin to slide forward, agonizingly slowly, then a little faster, then, all at once, we are really underway again and turning left into the northbound channel.
At the mouth of the Cape Fear River is the traditional home of the river pilots, whose boats are tied up at the wharf not far from the truncated pilot’s tower, once used to spot incoming oceangoing vessels. As a child, Robert Ruark spent time here under the mentorship of his maternal grandfather, himself an old river pilot. Ruark made a fortune writing novels, one of which Hollywood turned into a major motion picture, but his best work remains the two-part memoir of his idyllic boyhood summers spent fishing, exploring, and messing about in small boats: The Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. The Victorian house that was his summer home is now The Robert Ruark Inn, a bed and breakfast that offers a taste of that bygone era.
At Provision Company, there’s often a wait, but the fresh seafood and the expansive view of the ICW from the breezy dining pavilion inside are worth it. Today, Jill and I have driven down along the highway that follows the Cape Fear River stretch of the ICW past Orton Plantation — one of dozens that flourished on the river in its dark heyday of slavery. Our dining companions are the four young crew of a fast Coast Guard patrol boat, docked outside. Tacked onto the open ceiling beams, between a couple dozen ceiling fans, are numerous signs indicating the distances to Paris, Dublin, Miami, Cairo, and Southport (England).
From Southport (North Carolina), a boater can take the dogleg south toward Fort Caswell on the right, turn southwest past Bald Head Island — Old Baldy light on the left, the tall cylinder of Oak Island Light off to the right — and into the open ocean beyond. Or turn west and eventually curve southwestward, following the ICW past Lockwood Folly and Calabash into South Carolina along the stretch that opened in 1934.
Down-channel from Southport, the landing where the old swing bridge used to carry traffic across the ICW and the back marsh to Sunset Beach is now a boat launch, with a new, mammoth, curving high-rise bridge arcing over it. But something has been lost along with the old bridge — a relic that connected but also insulated and isolated you to take your chances in a lovely place. Still, some traditions hold steady. Tucked between windswept dunes on Bird Island, just beyond Sunset Beach, almost to the border of South Carolina, stands a mailbox with a simple address: Kindred Spirit. It serves as a kind of outdoor confessional, into which beach-walking strangers deposit letters bearing their deepest longings, their hardest grief, their piercing regrets, their cherished memories, and their soaring hopes — all for other strangers to read.
At Calabash’s Waterfront Seafood Shack, I sit at the dockside bar, a line of seats facing the water — the shrimper Miss Carolyn Ann tied up just a few yards away on the left, the channel stretching out, sun-glazed and scalloped by a fitful breeze, in front. A captain expertly backs his charter boat into the berth just below my perch, and I watch his crew deftly clean a haul of black sea bass. In a few minutes, I could be in Myrtle Beach, but I’d rather just sit here, enjoying the sun and the breeze, smelling the salt tang of the incoming tide, watching the parade of small boats.
This story was published on Jul 25, 2022