South Mills Lock, Jan. 14

The South Mills Lock on the Dismal Swamp Canal is shown from the south side of Joy’s Creek Road in South Mills, Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. Corps of Engineers has temporarily closed the canal between North Carolina and Virginia to vessel traffic so that the lock’s gates can be replaced. The work is expected to take about 90 days, according to the Corps, which maintains the lock.

SOUTH MILLS — Due to required maintenance, the Dismal Swamp Canal on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway between North Carolina and Virginia has temporarily been closed to vessel traffic.

Work crews from U.S. Facilities Inc. — the primary services contractor for the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — removed two South Mills Lock canal gates last week, assisted by subcontractors W.O. Grubb Crane Rental and Chesapeake Bay Diving Inc., according to a Corps press release.

The locks at South Mills and at Deep Creek in Virginia have temporarily discontinued operations while the work is being completed.

“There are no spare gates for locks on the Dismal Swamp Canal,” said Joel Scussel, the Norfolk District’s Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway project manager. “This requires us to shut the canal — then remove, refurbish and replace the gates during the slower months. There are no boats in the canal now. We notified the Coast Guard, and we will not let any vessels in at South Mills Lock or Deep Creek Lock until this refurbishment is complete.”

The Norfolk District of the Corps manages and operates two sets of gates at South Mills Lock and two at Deep Creek Lock along the Dismal Swamp Canal.

The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal remains open.

Scussel said canal gates on the waterway are removed and restored on a rotational basis every 15-20 years. The South Mills gates were last rehabilitated in 2002.

“The work is necessary because any structure in the water requires restoration,” Scussel explained. “Gates are one of the critical structures to the lock, and water can take a toll over time. It’s among our ongoing efforts to ensure safe navigation for the vessels that use these channels.”

The estimated cost of the rehabilitation project is $525,000 and the work is expected to take 90 days.

“Repairs are estimated to be completed by the end of March, before the spring migration of vessels going north for the summer,” Scussel said in an earlier press release.

The timetable is good news to the Elizabeth City business community, and business boosters hope the work is done on schedule so boats can visit the city this spring.

Debbie Malenfant, director of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc., said this week she’s glad the work will be completed in time for the spring boating season because boaters often patronize downtown businesses when they are here.

“We love any visitor that comes to downtown,” Malenfant said.

She said boaters visit restaurants and shops downtown, use laundry services here, use transportation services, and shop not only in the downtown district but also at grocery stores in town.

Boaters also help market Elizabeth City and its downtown by telling fellow boaters about the city’s hospitality and their positive experiences here, she said.

“They’re very great at spreading the word,” Malenfant said.

Malenfant pointed out that Elizabeth City lost a couple of boating seasons when the canal was closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, and since then boating traffic has not returned to pre-closure numbers even though boaters have begun coming this way again.

Indeed, the number of boaters who stopped by the offices of the Elizabeth City Convention and Visitors Bureau declined from 617 in 2015 to 349 in 2016 and then plunged to 87 in 2017, followed by a modest rebound to 355 in 2018.

The figures don’t represent all boaters who come through town but do give an indication of overall boater traffic visiting Elizabeth City.

The Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal are alternative routes on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The water extends south to Key West, Florida, and north to Eastport, Maine.