Draining the Swamps of Virginia

There are, according to the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), at least 144 swamps in Virginia. George Washington and others have sought to "reclaim" Dismal Swamp and other wetlands for agriculture, by draining them until the soil could be tilled.

In their vision, ditches would drain the standing water and crops could be grown on the organic-rich soils underneath. The Soil Conservation Service (now part of the Farm Services Agency in the US Department of Agriculture) pursued the same dream until the 1970's, and major agribusiness interests are still trying to obtain Federal funds to convert the bottomland hardwood forests of the lower Mississippi River into soybean farms.

In practice, the waterlogged soils of natural swamps are productive for only short periods of time and the costs to keep the area drained exceed the benefits from the farming. In addition, we now recognize the value of maintaining swamps in their natural state for flood control, water purification, and wildlife habitat. Today, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers to drain swamps.

Environmental advocates often see the Corps as a round-heeled pushover, approving requests for 404 permits without sufficient consideration of the environmental impacts. However, Newport News officials know from recent experience with their proposed reservoir in King William County that the Corps will reject some proposals...

The definition of "canal" in Appendix C of the Geographic Names Information System is:
- manmade waterway used by watercraft or for drainage, irrigation, mining, or water power (ditch, lateral)

By that definition, most of the "canals" in Virginia were dug to drain wetlands, not for transportation. A few projects to transport people, tobacco, wheat, corn, iron, coal, slate, manufactured goods, etc. were high-visibility and high-cost. The James River and Kanawha Canal was a great rival of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the General Assembly fought vigorously over where to invest state funds in transportation canals.

The Dismal Swamp canal was constructed, in the end, primarily for transportation purposes. Many of the canals in the Dismal Swamp were designed to move timber (especially cedar shingles) from the forested swamp to the market. In addition to the extraordinary number of canals dug in what is today the cities of Suffolk Chesapeake, notice in the list below the number of canals in Accomack County dug to enhance farmland.

[NOTE: The list is obviously incomplete. It's missing at least the Alexandria Canal that ran on the Virginia side of the Potomac River from Aqueduct Bridge to Alexandria, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal that connected Albemarle Sound with the Chesapeake Bay, and Fredericksburg's efforts to build a series of canals along the Rappahannock. River. Those "features" are not recorded as "canals" in the Geographic Names Information System.]

Dismal Swamp orthophoto
Dismal Swamp topo

canals were built to drain Great Dismal Swamp and to facilitate transport of timber products
canals were built to drain Great Dismal Swamp and to facilitate transport of timber products
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the state of Virginia, constructed in conformity to law from the late surveys authorized by the legislature and other original and authentic documents (1859)


59 Feature records have been selected from GNIS.*
Feature Name St County Equivalent Name Type Latitude Longitude USGS 7.5' Map
Badger Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363942N 0763233W Suffolk
Big Entry Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364320N 0762154W Deep Creek
Camp Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364030N 0762618W Lake Drummond NW
Corapeake Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363258N 0762738W Lake Drummond
Crooked Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364220N 0762414W Lake Drummond NW
Dismal Swamp Canal VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363323N 0762251W Lake Drummond
Double Ditches VA Accomack canal 375625N 0753801W Saxis
East Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364536N 0762731W Bowers Hill
Entry Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364355N 0762454W Lake Drummond NW
Feeder Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363539N 0762507W Lake Drummond
Fivemile Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364022N 0762352W Lake Drummond NW
Gilmerton Deep Creek Canal VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364551N 0761924W Norfolk South
Grey Ditch VA Accomack canal 374958N 0754144W Parksley
Happer Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363518N 0761755W Lake Drummond SE
Hardwood Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364102N 0762507W Lake Drummond NW
Hardwood Leg VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364108N 0762528W Lake Drummond NW
Herons Canal (historical) VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364045N 0761925W Deep Creek
Herring Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364122N 0761937W Deep Creek
Hudnell Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364257N 0762858W Lake Drummond NW
Interior Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363525N 0763017W Corapeake
James River And Kanawha Canal VA Henrico canal 373353N 0773148W Bon Air
Jericho Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364122N 0763005W Suffolk
Lateral Ditch Number One VA Suffolk (city) canal 363422N 0762940W Lake Drummond
Laurel Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363343N 0762430W Lake Drummond
Lindsey Canal VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364219N 0762010W Deep Creek
Lynn Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364038N 0763143W Suffolk
Middle Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363942N 0763021W Suffolk
Myrtle Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363348N 0762536W Lake Drummond
New Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364340N 0762942W Lake Drummond NW
North Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364512N 0762924W Bowers Hill
North Martha Washington Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364235N 0762125W Deep Creek
Northeast Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364138N 0762256W Lake Drummond NW
Northwest Canal VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363634N 0762048W Lake Drummond SE
Number Four Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363538N 0762105W Lake Drummond SE
Number One Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363328N 0762019W Lake Drummond SE
Number Three Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363509N 0762200W Lake Drummond SE
Number Two Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363420N 0762114W Lake Drummond SE
Paw-paw Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363533N 0762508W Lake Drummond
Persimmon Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363435N 0762507W Lake Drummond
Portsmouth Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364100N 0762432W Lake Drummond NW
Railroad Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363713N 0763115W Corapeake
Reddick Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363325N 0762757W Lake Drummond
Richmond City Canal VA Richmond canal 373145N 0772533W Richmond
Riddick Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363424N 0762755W Lake Drummond
Rosemary Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 364312N 0762120W Deep Creek
Short Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364452N 0762938W Lake Drummond NW
South Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363335N 0762937W Lake Drummond
South Martha Washington Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363336N 0762247W Lake Drummond
Southeast Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363952N 0762359W Lake Drummond NW
Stringers Ditch VA Northampton canal 371318N 0755355W Townsend
Sunday Ditch VA Northampton canal 372214N 0755116W Cobb Island
Sycamore Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363342N 0762501W Lake Drummond
Teagles Ditch VA Accomack canal 373912N 0753746W Accomac
Tommys Ditch VA Northampton canal 371010N 0755712W Townsend
Tributary Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364435N 0763132W Suffolk
Washington Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363819N 0763126W Suffolk
West Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 363521N 0763128W Corapeake
Western Boundary Ditch VA Chesapeake (city) canal 363320N 0762648W Lake Drummond
Williamson Ditch VA Suffolk (city) canal 364358N 0762952W Lake Drummond NW

Swamps of Virginia
Rivers and Watersheds
Virginia Places