Navigating the Sound
It was the greatest real estate hoax in history. Come to the New World and you will find a better life, glowing reports implied. If you took the bait, you spent months on a ship, in a wagon or a cart or on foot, only to land in uncompromising wilderness. And then you discovered you had to build a boat to survive. The Albemarle was not horse-and-buggy country.
Albemarle settlers were isolated by swamps, streams and muck. Overland travel was treacherous. Rivers and creeks became roads, and boats became trucks. Boats carried buckets of fish or oysters for the family dinner, or they took families to church, or they were poled to trade farm produce. If you needed a doctor, he came by boat.
Algonquian tribes were the first sailors of the Sound, skimming its unpredictable waters in sturdy canoes hollowed out from regal old-growth white cedar boles that towered in forests.
Historians tell us these boats were crude, but creating a seaworthy hollowed-out canoe from a tree was a marvel of patient engineering that few of us could figure out today. Fire and scraping with oyster shell brought down a tall, straight hardwood tree weighing several tons. Fire and scraping with oyster shell sized and shaped the craft so it handled properly in the water. Animal grease waterproofed it.
Colonists learned quickly. They borrowed techniques from Algonquians and from French Huguenot immigrants who constructed split log canoes.
Everybody became a builder of boats, adding flourishes to improve function and handling. No two boats were built alike, and the art of boat-building became part of life in the Albemarle, skills passed down from father to son. Today, the Carolina boat, product of generations of skilled boatbuilders is considered one of the finest for charter fishing and pleasure boating.
We are jumping ahead. One of the earliest boats on the Sound was the kunner (colloquial for canoe). It was the colonial workboat from the 1600s to the Civil War. Sturdy, small, about 15 feet long, simple to build with hand tools and patience, the kunner could be poled or paddled or rigged with a sail.
The kunner was a split-log canoe hollowed out of white cedar, a wood that is prized for its light weight and ability to resist rot. After the log was shaped, it was split down the length, and a separate wooden keel was inserted between the two shells, binding them together.
Of all the tools used in building a boat — the axe, the saw and the adze, the adze was the go-to tool for smoothing or carving rough-cut wood. It was also used for squaring up
logs or hollowing out timber.
Some craftsmen could make that adze sing until wood was trim and smooth and right pretty. From the 18th century on, skilled workmen, and their heirs, would become specialists in boat building, as the economy moved from subsistence to specialization based on marketable skills.
Shallow-draft vessels like kunners and skiffs ( small, V-bottomed boats), and flatboats could push far up rivers. Farmers and planters could ship directly from private docks. Wide rivers and bays provided good landings for larger ships, and towns would grow up around them.
Trails used by Native Americans became paths for colonists. But even after almost a century of settlement there were few decent roads and no bridges.
Tricky business, this making roads through swamps. The lay of swampy land, the willingness of an owner to give up land, and the needs of the community all figured in. How much cropland would a farmer be willing to lose so his neighbors could travel more conveniently? And how much should he be re-imbursed?
Colonial justices approved or rejected requests for new roads but a jury of citizens would determine routes. In retrospect, this sounds like pretty democratic county planning.
Building and maintaining roads wasn’t easy. Road companies did the best they could, but swampy terrain, and negligent overseers and unhappy property owners could slow progress. It could take a year to lay a road. Still, by the decade of the Revolution rudimentary highways and bridal paths eased travel.
Most people rode horses, though poor people walked. Simple horse carts or ox carts were transportation for most. By the end of the century, specially made pleasure carriages were a badge of social distinction for the gentry.
Ferries and the Railroad
Ferries became links to settlements. In fact free ferries were established in some counties. They were simple flat boats that were poled across waterways, or, less commonly, pulled by ropes or cables that were faster and more efficient.
Ferries were normally large enough to hold a team of horses and a carriage or a wagon. Two cable ferries are still operating in the Albemarle area: Parker’s Ferry across the Meherrin River and Sans Souci Ferry across the Cashie River. Typically, these ferries carry two cars. To summon the ferry from the other side of the river you blow your horn. The shore-to-shore ride takes only a few minutes.
By 1730 ferry service linked the north and south shores of the Sound, a run of about five miles that must have seemed like a carnival ride on windy days. A passenger paid 15 shillings for a one-way ride; if he had a horse, he paid 30 shillings.
Colonial justices set regulations for ferries, as they did for roads. They dealt with petitions from ferrymen and complaints from passengers. Ferrymen wanted to increase fees. Passengers wanted better service. In 1758 magistrates ordered ferrymen to keep more boats to give better attendance for carrying over passengers.
Sail, steam, and finally diesel vessels that could haul mighty railroad cars gradually replaced the original flatboat ferries. A sign along NC 32 at NC 308 north of Roper commemorates this piece of history.
By 1883 the Norfolk Southern Railroad linked Norfolk, Virginia with towns in North Carolina, through Elizabeth City to Edenton. In 1910 the Railroad built a wooden trestle across the Sound bridging the five miles south from Edenton to Mackeys Ferry and Plymouth. It operated through the middle of the century.
The trestle was eventually demolished in favor of a bridge across the Sound.
Steamboats and Showboat
Ferries were not the only vessels on the water. During the 1800s the Sound was a busy thoroughfare. Coasters (small sailing vessels) carried cargo up and down rivers and between colonies. Larger craft bound for the West Indies loaded salt herring, lumber, tobacco, and corn in exchange for rum, spices, silk, and sugar on the return trip.
For almost a century, from the 1830s on, steamboats linked small towns to the world beyond. Bi-weekly trips from Norfolk to Albemarle towns dispatched mail, passengers, produce and circuses.
With shallow draft, as little as 15 inches, and a 5 mph speed they were a grand replacement for flatboats that were poled — laboriously — far up river where masted ships with deeper draft would founder. Plantations had their own landings, where steamers were flagged from the shore by day with white handkerchiefs and by night with torches, lanterns, or fires on the bank.
Even so, navigating rivers that wound through swamps could be tricky, and at times the cumbersome vessels had to be poled to avoid foundering. To assure unrestricted passage, state law prohibited felling trees into rivers.
Steamers regularly brought circuses and side shows to small towns for almost a hundred years beginning in the 1830’s. Big-time entertainment came to eastern Carolina and the Chesapeake in 1913 with the arrival of the massive, 128-foot-long, two-story, shallow-draft James Adams Show Boat.
Residents would eagerly line the docks to watch the floating theater secure its moorings, then race on board to offer help in exchange for tickets to shows. Otherwise, they would pay ten cents to enjoy melodramas, singing, dancing, juggling and vaudeville routines in an elegantly appointed gold and blue 500-seat theatre.
Showboat entertainment delighted audiences for more than twenty years until attendance began to fall off. Movies, then in their infancy, enthralled patrons and became a regular substitute for the occasional showboat visit. Upkeep and repairs on the floating theater were constant. And the depression squeezed pennies.
The life and times of the floating theater was immortalized in Edna Ferber’s novel, Showboat, which was made into a Broadway musical and two movies.
Although the novel takes place on the Mississippi River, her intimate knowledge of showboat life came from living on the James Adams Show Boat and joining its crew for four days in 1925, until it docked in Elizabeth City, on the Pasquotank River in the Albemarle area.
It was, she wrote, the most leisurely and dreamlike of journeys.
The Beloved Shad Boat
And then the shad boat sailed in like cavalry to rescue an economy shattered by the Civil War.
Shad boats were built only for fifty years, from 1880 to 1930. They operated only in eastern North Carolina. Yet no sailing craft speaks of eastern North Carolina more eloquently than the shad boat. In 1987 the shad boat was designated the official state historical boat of North Carolina.
Watermen called the shad boat “smart”. It was fast and easy to handle, a thing of grace and beauty, with sleek curves and a shallow draft. It could maneuver treacherous shoals with confidence. It was powered by three sails–a main sail, a jib and a topsail.
Shad boats quickly became the choice for fishing and ferrying, and progging, vernacular for doing anything from loafing on the water to hauling fish and fowl and farm produce.
It happened that the shad boat made its debut when fishing was becoming more efficient. Mighty seine nets, pound nets, gill nets were laid down to round up herring and shad that swam into the Sound and up rivers by the millions to spawn each spring.
It was a time of the great Albemarle fisheries, when fishermen worked day and night to land catches that would be exported to a nation clamoring for more and more fish, and still there would be plenty left to process for keeping people fed throughout the rest of the year.
And so the shad boat, sturdy and durable, was named for the fish it hauled. An 8-foot beam gave it stability, especially when handling heavy pound nets. The round bottom and the deep V-shaped bow could take on steep, choppy waves even when heavily loaded.
Smaller boats, like kunners and skiffs could not have handled enough volume to make the fisheries profitable.
Typically, a two-man crew, the captain who steered and manned the sails and his mate who bailed or adjusted ballast, kept the boat square in the water. Ballast consisted of dozens of fifty-pound sandbags stitched by women back home.
As the hold was piled with the day’s catch and sand bags (wet and heavy now) were no longer needed, they would be stacked on narrow side decks. (This was cardio in the days before gyms.)
Now we shall meet the original creator of the shad boat, George Washington Creef, or Uncle Wash, as he was affectionately called, gentle and sociable, tall, with large, graceful hands and a flowing gray beard.
He was a fisherman and a boat builder, and he was loyal to the Union during the Civil War. In his words, I was employed by the U.S. Navy freighting coal in my own vessel.
After the Civil War, Creef had an idea for creating a stronger, larger boat, 24 feet long, that could haul large catches and handle well in unpredictable Sound waters.
His plan was to overlay the split-log construction of the kunner with planking and add interior struts for strength.
Monumental effort went into building those first shad boats. And imagination, too, rooted in a deep knowledge of local waters. Creef and crew used basic hand tools, a hand saw, an axe, and an adze, to fell and prepare the cedar and cut and plane the planking, all held together with copper nails.
Then the hunt would begin for just the right cypress knees that would become curved ribs, or braces, for the interior of the boat. It could take days trekking through swamps to find a cypress stump that would yield a proper curved rib, or maybe two.
The hunt for cypress knees could mean working knee-deep in water in early spring to beat bugs and snakes, hoping that one tool or another — a six-foot crosscut saw, an axe, an adze, wedges and a maul — doesn’t fall into the swamp during use. Once extracted, the spurs were taken to a sawmill for finishing.
Local builders began to replicate the original shad boat in great numbers, though after the cedar forests were cut down, construction was modified to plank on frame.
Shad boats became an extension of a waterman’s life well into the 1930s and beyond. When engines replaced sails, around 1910, they became even more versatile in shallow waters.
The shad boat was the pick-up truck of its day, but its design elements live on in modern pleasure craft that enjoy smooth and seaworthy travel in Albemarle waters and beyond.
You can find original shad boats on display at the George Washington Creef Boathouse in Manteo and the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in the town of Plymouth.
(Next: Antebellum Albemarle)