After my first, less-than-spectacular visit to Dismal Swamp State Park, I decided that I required a new approach to experiencing its fabled splendors. After examining the Google Map of the area in greater detail, I decided that the best way to see some of the areas deep within the swamp would be to avoid the eastern park entrance altogether, and enter from the south via a turnoff of U.S. Route 158. I would drive three miles east of Acorn Hill and turn north on Swamp Road, following it along the Weyerhaeuser Ditch to Cross Canal Road. Next, I would turn right and follow the Cross Canal to the Forest Line Ditch, park, and walk along Forest Ditch Road at the western boundary of the park. After only a three-mile walk I would arrive at the heart of the Pocosin Registered Natural Heritage Area, and that was exactly where I wanted to be.
Figuring I would only need a couple of hours to complete my Dismal Swamp walk before sundown, I made additional plans for the earlier part of the day, as well as for the evening afterwards. In particular, I would sandwich the visit to the swamp between a series of eleven brief stops at smaller points of interest, and dinner and a movie. It was an ambitious (nutty?) scheme, and I wasn’t sure that I could squeeze so much into a single day, but I decided to give it a go.
1 – Skewarkee Trail (Williamston)
Situated on the Roanoke River (formerly Moratoc or Moratuc River), Williamston is located 28 miles northeast of Greenville. The town is thought to have been established on the site of a Tuscarora Indian village sometime around 1730. At that time the area was known to Native Americans as Squahawty. After the city grew and became a prominent shipping place for tar, pitch, turpentine, and other forest products, English settlers called it Tar Landing. It was named Williamston in 1779. In the 1960s the town was a both a focus of civil rights movement activities and the scene of KKK rallies.
I left the house while it was still dark so that I could arrive in Williamston at sunrise. I hit town just as it was getting light, and knew immediately that I had been blessed with beautiful weather for my outing. The air was cool and crisp, and the sky was clear and blue. I parked in the downtown area at the head of the urban Skewarkee Trail, near the old hardware store that is now home to a gift shop. Exactly who is going to Williamston (population 5,500) to buy the upscale-looking gifts I saw through the windows, I don’t know.
The Skewarkee Trail is a mile-long, rails-to-trails path shaped like an elongated question mark. The long, straight stretch forms a greenway through the town, and I passed several interesting old buildings as I strolled beside the creek. At the end of the trail the path hooks left across River Road and ends at a boardwalk along the Roanoke River. A map posted nearby indicated that there are plans to extend the boardwalk westward so as to meet up with Moratoc Park, but as far as I could tell the proposed construction is on indefinite hold.
A narrow pavement branches off the Skewarkee Trail just north of Main Street. This half-mile path leads to Moratoc Park, situated at the original wharf site beside the bend in the Roanoke River. The 18-acre park includes a canoe/kayak launch, fishing pier, playground equipment, picnic shelter, and a conference hall that is often rented for wedding receptions. An old tobacco barn is also being preserved at the park.
2 – Charles Kuralt Trail at Conine Creek in Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge (Windsor)
The Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge consists of five tracts of land spread across the Roanoke River Basin. The most central of these is Conine Island, a land mass covering about 7.5 square miles within the Roanoke River. The portion of the river that flows on the north side of the island is relatively narrow and is also called Conine Creek. The Charles Kuralt Trail begins one mile north of Williamston on the eastern side of U.S. Route 17.
It was the end of October when I visited, and the area was off limits to hikers on weekends due to hunting season. Fortunately, I was there on a Monday and I had the place to myself. The trail was soggy and many fallen trees lay across it. Both of these conditions I attributed to the recent hurricane, Matthew. The water on either side of the trail was black and home to lots of cypress trees, as is typical of the area.
I wasn’t sure how long I would be hiking the trail because none of the brochures I read or websites I visited specified the distance it covers, but I anticipated it taking longer than any of the other pre-Dismal Swamp walks of the day. As I moved along the trail, it got progressively wetter, and after 15 minutes it was clear that I needed to decide between wading through ankle-deep muck (I had my boots on) and turning back. I chose to head back to the car and move on to my next destination. It was only later that I found a brief online audio description of the area that disclosed the trail length – half a mile. So, evidently I had walked the entire thing and the mess I had considered trudging through was not actually an extension of the trail.
3 – Cashie Wetlands Walk (Windsor)
The Cashie River originates at Roxobel, North Carolina, and winds along in a generally southeastern direction for 55 miles. The Cashie, Chowan, and Roanoke Rivers all empty into Albemarle Sound at about the same location, near Plymouth. The town of Windsor is located about halfway along the Cashie River, just 13 miles north of Williamston.
Like Williamston, it was the exporting of tar, pitch, and turpentine that helped establish the town of Windsor. I had stumbled upon the sign for the Cashie Wetalnds Walk while driving aimlessly through the countryside years earlier, but had not stopped to explore it. The morning of my second outing to Dismal Swamp seemed like a perfect time to finally check it out.
The Cashie Wetlands Walk is a .57-mile, h-shaped path that is accessed from York Street. The long, straight part of the h is a concrete walkway leading to at a platform at the edge of the tea-colored waters of the Cashie River. The bent leg of the h is a boardwalk that curves through the marshlands that adjoin the river. I found the walk to be peaceful and tidy and I recommend it to anyone in the area.
Immediately next to the wetlands walk, and on both sides of York Street, is the Livermon Park & Mini-Zoo. The park provides picnic pavilions, playground equipment, and restrooms. In addition to an assortment of farm animals, there are many other creatures in the zoo, including buffaloes, alpacas, and emus. There is even a zebra, and the group of children that I saw there seemed to be having a blast.
4 – Rail Switch Nature Trail (Plymouth)
After my visit to Windsor, I doubled back to Williamston and then drove 20 miles east to Plymouth.
Due to its proximity to Albemarle Sound, Plymouth was a strategic location during the Civil War, and the second-largest battle in North Carolina was fought there. After 1937, the economy of Plymouth was driven primarily by paper manufacturing, but in 2009 the mill switched to pulp production and reduced employment by 33%. In an effort to employ former mill workers, the town has attempted to increase its tourist trade.
Most importantly, Plymouth is the birthplace of Jerry Angelo Brooks (a.k.a. J. B. Smoove).
When I arrived in Plymouth, I parked in front of the offices of the Roanoke Beacon, across the street from the most conspicuous landmark in the historic downtown area – a replica of the Roanoke River Lighthouse. The lighthouse is situated beside the boardwalk that runs along the riverfront.
I strolled down the street past several charming shops and cozy cafés, and ended up at the Port O’ Plymouth and Roanoke River Museum that occupies the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad station. Evidently the museum is renowned for the completeness of its collection of belt-buckles and buttons from the Civil War. (I guess that beats my collection of drier lint and dust bunnies.)
The museum was closed, but the replica the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle was on display outside, as was an old train caboose. Any reader who knows me well (that’s you Marilen) will not be surprised to hear that the Little Red Caboose brought my mother to mind, as the song by that title was the only one I ever heard her sing. What I especially enjoyed about the outside of the museum was the fact that the sign specified the elevation as eight feet.
Across the field of the recreational area located beside the museum is the beginning of the Rail Switch Nature Trail. The first portion of the half-mile trail runs parallel to the Roanoke River, but the second part bends south and the trail ends at Main Street. There was nothing remarkable about the trail, but it provided a pleasant enough way of stretching my legs and taking pleasure in the outdoors.
5 – Eden House Point (Merry Hill)
My next three specific destinations were north of Plymouth and on the east side of the Chowan River. Before crossing over, however, I hoped to find a spot on the western shore from which I could view the water. Inspection of the map suggested that Eden House Point located just before the two-mile Eden House Bridge might provide such a vista.
As I approached the bridge I saw a dirt and gravel road on the right side of the highway, and hoped that it would lead to a location that would serve my purpose. I pulled in and followed the road a short distance, but it quickly became very narrow and overgrown, so I make a K-turn (actually, more like and asterisk-turn) and drove back to the highway.
Next, I crossed over to the opposite side of U.S. Route 17, onto Governor Eden House Road. I drove throughout the Eden House Point area and enjoyed glimpses of the river, but because I encountered nothing but private properties, I found no opportunities to walk to the riverbank for pictures. Most of the homes in the area were mansions, and the majority of the mansions featured For Sale signs. I considered posing as a potential buyer so as to gain access to a panoramic view of the Chowan, but had no confidence in my ability to act the part of a millionaire.
6 – Bennett’s Millpond (Tyler)
Before arriving at Bennett’s Millpond, I had read online that it had been the site of a water-driven corn mill, and that I could expect it to feature a boardwalk and birding trail. Sadly, when I arrived the sign reading “Recreation Area Open to Public” was positioned just in front of a police cordon indicating that entry was prohibited. I didn’t investigate enough to determine if the restriction was imposed to protect people from safety hazards or to preserve a crime scene. Instead, I moved on to my next destination.
7 – Dillard’s Millpond (Tyler)
I had very little information about Dillard’s Millpond before beginning my adventure. Browsing the Internet I managed to obtain an address (which turned out to be wrong) and a meager description of the place as a “natural resource to be enjoyed.” For this reason I did not have great expectations for the destination, but managed to find it and stop for a visit. Perhaps not surprisingly it is located on Dillard’s Mill Road, not on Cannon’s Ferry Road as the Visit Edenton website indicates.
I was delighted that I took the time to find Dillard’s Millpond, because I thought it was one of the loveliest places that I visited on my little adventure. It is a rather small place and there isn’t much to do if you don’t have a canoe or kayak. There is only a single “trail” that is only a few yards long and merely allows one to get two somewhat different perspectives of the pond. Nevertheless, I found it to be an especially picturesque place where I could easily imagine I had been transported to the Shire or some other magical place in Middle Earth. Unfortunately my photographs do not come close to doing its beauty justice.
8 – Hendrix Park & Cannon’s Ferry River Walk (Tyler)
The Hendrix Park & Cannon’s Ferry River Walk is located on the eastern shore of the Chowan River. From its 350-foot-long boardwalk one can enjoy an unobstructed view of the river at one of its widest points. I found the spot to be calm and relaxing and I took the time to eat my box lunch there.
9 – Newbold-White House (Hertford)
In 1663, Joseph Scott purchased the property on the Perquimans River known as ‘The Vineyard.” He later sold the land to Abraham Sanders who, in 1730, built North Carolina’s first brick house. The structure was made of glazed, Flemish bond brickwork, and served as both a Quaker meeting house and the birthplace of North Carolina government. The current title of the fully restored house is derived from the names of the last two private owners of the property.
I’m not exactly a history buff, and I generally don’t enjoy visiting historic sites just because something historic happened there. If it is an especially beautiful location or offers activities that I enjoy (like walking, not watching a candle-making or horse-shoeing demonstration), that is one thing, but usually I avoid spending much time at historic landmarks. If that makes me a cretin, then I’m a cretin. I can live with that.
Anyway, because of my aversion to historic tourist attractions, I didn’t expect to have a great time visiting the Newbold-White House, but decided to stop by because I was going to be in the area anyway. As it turned out, the hour or so I spent at the former Quaker homestead was the highlight of my day.
When I arrived, the visitors’ center was closed and nobody else was on the premises. That made for an excellent start. It didn’t take long to check out the exterior of the closed house. My problem with many restored places is that I like old things to look old, and after restoration they often look brand new. This place looked brand new, so it didn’t impress me. On the other hand, the property was neat and pretty, and I always love seeing a vineyard. But what surprised and excited me the most was a sign that pointed towards a nature walk.
I moved in the direction vaguely suggested by the sign and managed to find the trail to the left, just beyond the small vineyard. With trees on the left side and farmland on the right, the quarter-mile path led towards the water and ended at a dock on the western shore of the Perquimans River. The dock was in perfect condition and outfitted with two clean benches. The sun was warm, the breeze was cool, and the shoreline and view of the river were exquisite. I sat for a long time in the peace and quiet, listening to only the sounds of the water gently lapping on the shore and the breeze moving through the treetops and Spanish moss. I imagined sitting right in that spot for the rest of my life, but after half an hour I recalled my appointment with the Great Dismal Swamp and I reluctantly moved along.
10 – Missing Mill Park (Hertford)
For centuries philosophers have pondered the question, “Is a park a park if it doesn’t have geese?” There may never be a satisfactory answer to this question, but one thing is certain – Missing Mill Park is a park.
Located in the heart of Hertford on the Perquimans River, Missing Mill Park is very small. There is a picnic pavilion, a charming view of the river, and, of course, the requisite geese. There is also a rectangular barren area that I supposed was the former site of the eponymous missing mill.
During the early 1900s, Hertford was a thriving lumber town, but today its economy is predominantly agriculture-based . The town is noteworthy for its S-shaped swing bridge (a one-of-a-kind in the U.S.) and for being the location of Wolfman Jack’s record company.
11 – Winfall Landing Park (Winfall)
Just across the Perquimans River from Hertford is the small (population 600) agrarian town of Winfall, which is known for having some of the oldest houses in the region. Winfall Landing Park is a serene spot with a nice view of the river and the railroad trestle that spans the Perquimans.
12 – Swamp Road (Sunbury)
After my brief visit to Winfall, it was time to head north for my approach to the Great Dismal Swamp. I arrived at my intended destination exactly according to schedule, but found Swamp Road to be barred. I could not drive in, and to park beside the highway and walk into the park would have required at least 12 extra miles of hiking. I had neither the time nor energy for such and undertaking and, therefore, had no choice but to forego the activity around which the day had been planned. I didn’t know how to best describe my failure.
13 – Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (South Mills)
Looking on the bright side of things, I was at least close to the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center where I was able to use the restroom to change out of pants covered in Charles Kuralt’s mud. The welcome center is very nice, but travelers should be warned about the terrible music that is piped into the restrooms at considerable volume. But then again, you might find the racket handy if you’re needing to make lots of private noise of your own.
14 – Historic Downtown Edenton
Edenton was the site of the first permanent settlement of Europeans in North Carolina. It is located on Albemarle Sound at the mouth of the Chowan River. Today it is a popular retirement area and tourist attraction. It’s a very charming town that features many very old and beautiful homes.
Because I had to abandon my plans to hike at Dismal Swamp, I headed to Edenton much earlier than intended, but I didn’t imagine it would be difficult to pass the time until I was ready for dinner. When I approached the historical downtown area, I was puzzled by the barricades that blocked many of the streets, and wondered about the crowds of strange-looking people. Earlier in the day I had found it peculiar that I had seen some rather eccentric folks in other towns I passed through, but the scene in Edenton was weird on a completely different level.
Within seconds it dawned on me that it was Halloween. I had completely forgotten both about the holiday and about the fact that Edenton is well-known for its extravagant celebration of the day. Huge numbers of families were parading around in elaborate and expensive costumes. Superheroes and villains were everywhere, and business owners had employees stationed on the streets distributing treats to all who passed by.
I made my way to Edenton Bay, parked, and strolled around the beautiful waterfront area before heading into the crowd to inspect the decked-out children of all ages. (Sorry. By this time it was too dark to take photos of the Halloweenies, so you’ve got to settle for one of seagulls.)
While I roamed around observing the fun that people were having in their costumes, I tried to locate the restaurant I intended to eat at, but found that it no longer existed. I must have learned about it from an outdated website.
Next, I stopped by the historic Taylor Theater. The theater was built in 1925, but I intended to see a more current movie – The Girl on the Train. I wasn’t especially jazzed about seeing that particular film, but it seemed like an acceptable excuse for experiencing the theater. When I arrived, however, I learned that although I had recently checked the theater Facebook page, it had not been updated and the movie was no longer playing there. Because I was completely uninterested in the two films that were showing, I had to abandon the second part of my evening too. I cursed the miserable, deceitful Internet – except for Wikipedia, of course.
Well, I had over-packed my lunch, so I simply ate the leftovers for dinner, and then drove home ahead of schedule. Things had not gone exactly as planned, and my outing to Dismal Swamp did not actually take me to Dismal Swamp, but I had a very satisfying day nonetheless.
A Little about Roanoke River Lighthouse
Edenton is the current location of the most recent Roanoke River Lighthouse. I had seen the replica of this lighthouse earlier in the day in Plymouth.
The original Roanoke River Lighthouse was built in 1866 on the side of Albemarle Sound opposite to Edenton. It burned down in 1885, but was immediately rebuilt. The next winter, however, masses of moving river ice broke two of the lighthouse pilings, and it fell into the river. In 1887 it was rebuilt a second time in the same location. (Does the lighthouse remind anybody else of Monty Python’s Swamp Castle?)
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1941, and remained in place, but unoccupied, until it was sold for $10 in 1955. The buyer, Elijah Tate, had previously destroyed two other regional lighthouses he had purchased. His attempts to relocate them had failed miserably.
Tate sold the lighthouse to tugboat operator, Emmett Wiggins, who moved it to Filbert’s Creek on the opposite shore, just west of Edenton. Wiggins’ method for successfully relocating the lighthouse involved partially flooding an improvised barge, moving the barge under the building, and then pumping out the ballast water so that the lighthouse was sufficiently supported before the corner pilings were detached.
Wiggins lived in the lighthouse until his death in 1995. In 2007 the Edenton Historical Society bought it from Wiggins’ heirs and moved it to its current location.