The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was proposed initially by William Byrd II in 1728. Surveys were made but engineering complications held up the project until the 1850s. Upon opening on January 9, 1859, the waterway provided an economic link between North Carolina and Virginia, connecting Albemarle Sound and Chesapeake Bay. The full canal was seventy-five miles long, but only fourteen of those cut through land. Of those miles five are in North Carolina, essentially bisecting Currituck County at Coinjock. The rest of the canal followed natural channels and dredged rivers.
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Construction was authorized by bills introduced in the North Carolina and Virginia legislatures in 1854. Bonds to pay for the project, totaling just over one million dollars, were sold in the two states. Whereas fifty years before the nearby Dismal Swamp Canal had been dug by hand, newly invented steam dredges (known as “Iron Titans”) were used to cut through massive stumps, roots, and buried logs. During the Civil War the canal was the site of partisan action with ships sunk at the mouths to block entry.
After the war commercial use increased, especially by steamship lines. For example, in 1892, a total of 7,717 vessels (including 4,061 steamers) used the waterway. A private venture from its opening in 1859, the canal’s operation was taken over by the federal government on April 30, 1913. Today the canal is still in use, in large part by pleasure craft, as part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Alexander Crosby Brown, Juniper Waterway: A History of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (1981)
Clifford Reginald Hinshaw Jr., “North Carolina Canals Before 1860,” North Carolina Historical Review (January 1948): 1-56
David Stick, The Outer Banks of North Carolina (1958)
Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal