For more than two decades, boaters traveling the Intracoastal Waterway could always look forward to one thing when they reached the Great Dismal Swamp Canal: a great conversation with Robert Peek.
Peek worked for U.S. Facilities, an infrastructure management firm, as a bridge, lock and dam master at the canal lock in Deep Creek, Virginia. In that role, Peek made sure boats safely maneuvered through the lock on the Virginia side of the canal.
But his impact was much greater.
Since his sudden death earlier this month, Peek’s family and colleagues have paid tribute to the man one described as both a “historian” and “ambassador” for the Dismal Swamp Canal and as someone “genuinely caring of his boaters.”
Donna Stewart, director of the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center, recalled Peek this way in a social media post following his death:
“Everyone was a friend, and he wins a trophy for Hospitality. Everyone knows Robert, and if you didn’t, you wanted to meet him,” she said.
“I like to picture him laughing with God, having a cup of coffee and sweet breakfast treat, debating a few matters and having a good laugh while enjoying the heavenly companionship,” Stewart continued. “I’m sure he has reeled in a few angels who could not stay away from the engaging conversations. Robert is just that way. He was a dear friend, and he will never be replaced.”
Peek’s widow, Jacqueline, said his work at the canal allowed him to meet a long string of boaters over the years. Some were traveling the canal for the first time and needed instructions or safety tips. Others were returning to the canal on seasonal trips or holiday getaways. Her husband tried to get to know as many of them as possible.
“He would often express regret that he couldn’t remember every captain’s name but he might remember their boat,” Jacqueline said.
Boaters paying tribute to Peek on Sturtevant Funeral Home and Crematory’s webpage said they always looked forward to seeing his jolly face. Others said they counted on him for tourism tips, conversation about the joys of boating, and history about the area he called home. Some said he even would surprise them with refreshments.
Although Peek worked at the Deep Creek lock in Virginia, Stewart recalls him often coming down to South Mills, site of the 22-mile-long Dismal Swamp Canal’s other lock.
“He was a noted historian and often came down for the Dismal Swamp State Park’s and Camden tourism’s special events,” Stewart said. “He brought his pontoon boat for special VIP boat rides during our annual Paddle for the Border event, and would offer boat rides to attendees of the (Camden) Dismal Day event held every October. He also served as a history docent on the Dismal Swamp Express Wagon rides in the park during Dismal Day.”
Peek often volunteered at these public events, amazing tourists and colleagues alike with his deep knowledge of the canal and the area, Stewart said.
“It was amazing to hear what he could recite from memory,” she said. “When Robert presented a program to visiting boating groups — on some occasions, up to 50 people — he usually shared this beautiful description of why the Dismal Swamp should be protected.”
Peek was a man who managed to have fun on the job and give both boaters and colleagues more than they expected, Stewart said. He was an ambassador for the canal who will be fondly remembered and sorely missed, she said.
Stewart said her hope is that folks who use the canal in the future, whether it be for kayaking, biking, boating or walking, find it as nice a place to spend the day as Robert Peek did.