Chesapeake to study proposed swamp visit center


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

SOUTH MILLS — A proposed visitors center in Virginia for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge would give tourists another reason to visit the swamp, the director of North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center said Monday.

The Virginian Pilot reported that the city of Chesapeake, Va., is evaluating a plot of a land for a visitors center to draw more attention to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

The city is planning to conduct a four-week, $36,000 feasibility study to evaluate whether a 2-acre plot next to the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail would be a good place for a center, according to the newspaper report.

Chesapeake officials have said the city plans to share the facility with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would buy the property and build the center. They say about $490,000 is available to purchase the property. No funds have been allocated for construction, estimated to cost as much $8 million.

The Daily Advance was unable to reach Chesapeake parks officials for comment Monday. City offices were closed in observance of George Washington Day.

Advocates say the decades-old plan would draw tourists traveling into the area along U.S. Highway 17.

Donna Stewart, director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center on the North Carolina side of the swamp, said Monday she sees Chesapeake’s proposed visitors center as one more reason for people to visit the area. She said she had been asked some years ago to write a letter of endorsement for a center that would promote the wildlife refuge but hadn’t heard anything recently about the project.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is located along the Dismal Swamp Canal and U.S. 17 north of South Mills. The welcome center is a unique travel destination because it is accessible by both highway and waterway. The canal is an alternate route of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, connecting the Elizabeth River in Virginia with the Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City.

Stewart said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the National Wildlife Refuge, and Chesapeake Parks and Recreation are great partners with North Carolina and Camden County in promoting outdoor recreation in and around the swamp.

“We work well with them,” Stewart said. “We collaborate on the Paddle for the Border event every year.”

Paddle for the Border is an annual 7.5-mile canoe and kayak trek from the Dismal Swamp State Park in South Mills to the Ballahack Road Boat Ramp in Chesapeake. This year’s Padde for the Border — the 16th annual event — is slated for May 4.

The Dismal Swamp Canal has been designated as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, is a historic landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Nearly 2,000 boaters a year stop at the welcome center’s dock.

The Dismal Swamp Canal Trail is a three-mile paved trail that begins at the southern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center and Dismal Swamp State Park and ends at N.C. Highway 343. The trail is maintained by Camden County Parks and Recreation.