Dec. 7, 2008

Calypso, the research boat captained by famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, was not the first vessel of that name to visit these waters. There was another Calypso – named for the nymph who seduced Odysseus – that was perhaps less adventurous but nevertheless a cornerstone of our history. And next month we quietly observe the sesquicentennial of its passage.

It was Jan. 9, 1859. The crew of this Calypso, a 50-foot steamboat, ran a hawser to a heavy iron barge waiting patiently by a siding at Great Bridge and fired up the vessel’s trusty high-pressure boiler. With a likely toot of its steam whistle, side paddle wheels churned the mahogany waters of the just-finished Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and off they went toward Currituck.

The Calypso thus became the first vessel to transit the A&C Canal. This new waterway, 70 miles of rivers, channels and protected natural bays, is most noticed here when the bridge at Great Bridge begins to rise and traffic grinds to a halt, but it has been a vital link between southeastern Virginia and the east coast, from Maine to Florida, for a century and a half.

Before the A&C, the only means of moving goods from North Carolina to the port of Norfolk was to trek them overland, ship them around Cape Hatteras or use the slow, shallow and time-consuming Dismal Swamp Canal. The solution was to burrow through miles of hard, sometimes unyielding land and tie the deeper waters of the two states together.

Late last month, the city of Chesapeake recognized several improvements to Great Bridge Lock Park, including a bronze-covered medallion that commemorates the little steamboat. The four-foot round, compass-shaped monument was inspired and created by the Virginia Canal and Navigation Society. Etched in polished granite at the center of the medallion is a likeness of the Calypso, a stream of smoke trailing behind its jaunty smokestack.

Last week, George Ramsey, southeast regional director of the canal society – and its most avid local historian – met me at the park. We stood on the berm overlooking the lock on the north side, watching southbound boats entering the lock from the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, waiting for the double lock gates to send them on their way.

The canal, he said, was hugely important. Until then, anyone attempting to ferry goods north on the Dismal Swamp Canal had to crawl though seven locks in the canal and a couple more at what was called the Gilmerton Cut. He’s seen a letter, he said, by one skipper who complained that the trip took him three weeks.

The need for the canal had been recognized for more than a century, but we had to wait for the invention of a steam-powered to get the job done. Nine of these “iron titans,” brought down from Wilmington, Del., ripped through tangled roots and hard-as-rock stumps of ancient cypress trees. Then, what the dredges couldn’t budge, blasting powder finally did.

Ramsey showed me a richly illustrated book about the canal, “Juniper Waterway, A History of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, by Alexander Crosby Brown, published for the Mariners’ Museum. It’s fascinating, especially the passage that Brown quotes from a writer-illustrator who journeyed down the waterway on the Calypso for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

The Calypso, he wrote, “commenced operations by thoroughly sprinkling, in two or three well-directed puffs, a solution of soot over the clothes of the passengers. This preliminary through, she struck down the center of the canal-like stream, the overhanging branches almost brushing her wheel-houses. The water having the color of brown stout, the sensation was somewhat that of navigating the torrent that swept away a London street some years ago when one of Whitehead’s vats gave way.

“The Calypso continued on down the twisting, amber-colored, juniper stream, apparently devoid of all human habitation on the banks save for one shack they encountered during the first dozen of so miles of travel. Although they saw only two people, apparently there were plenty of muskrats. They dived under our bows with a calmness that savored more of philosophy than fright and perhaps more contempt than either.”

This little workhorse of a boat, Calypso, represents the spirit of the canal. Its ending, though, is intertwined with another, darker story. The Civil War was about to begin, and soon all commerce on the canal was halted as once-proud vessels like Calypso were scuttled and sent to the bottom.

The only trace now is the medallion.

The center of the medallion is a sketch by “Waterman Will” Turnage of the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society.