National Park Service unveils markers
Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
June 12, 2007
Two centuries ago, African American freedom seekers plied the Pasquotank River to escape slavery, making their way through the Great Dismal Swamp’s dense wetlands. At a river front ceremony on June 11, the National Park Service (NPS) unveiled markers to help visitors understand this chapter of American history and the waterway’s significance as a path to freedom. The markers recognize the Pasquotank River and the Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) Great Dismal Swamp Boardwalk Project as an official part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. "Waterways and natural land features acted as both ‘abolitionist’ and ‘conductor’ for enslaved African Americans," said Barbara Tagger, Southeast Region Program Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and an NPS historian. "It was like a map. If they knew how the waterways progressed, they would follow them north, and in some cases south, to freedom" Tagger, who helped Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County and Camden County officials dedicate the markers today, said the Pasquotank River is the first river in the United States to be recognized in the NPS Network to Freedom program. "In this particular part of North Carolina, the Pasquotank River was integral to the Underground Railroad because of the number of boats and ships that came to that area and made their way north," said Tagger. The Pasquotank River and Great Dismal Swamp Part of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Pasquotank River was once an important transportation link between the Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. During the 1800s, the river and Elizabeth City bustled with activity as ships, steamers and boats disembarked from the waterfront to transport goods and people throughout the South. Some freedom seekers stowed away on the vessels. Others were hired by boat owners and gained transportation to points north where they sought independence as workmen. Upon reaching Elizabeth City, a number of freedom seekers sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp, an enormous track of forested wetlands that straddles the North Carolina/Virginia state line. Many used the swamp as a stopping place, before continuing on their journey. Some even made a home in the wilderness, living off the land and bartering with local farmers for food and supplies. Hired slave labor dug the Dismal Swamp Canal, the oldest manmade waterway in the country, in 1793. The Pasquotank River, which forms the Elizabeth City waterfront, was given designation on the Network to Freedom in 2004. The ECSU Great Dismal Swamp Boardwalk Project received its designation in 2003. The half mile long boardwalk and observation tower provides access to 639 miles of wetlands wilderness area for use by ECSU in research and educational activities. A third Elizabeth City area site, the Dismal Swamp State Park was designated in 2003? a marker is planned for this site as well. Freedom Seekers Itinerary and Museum of the Albemarle Displays As a result of the NPS Network to Freedom designations, the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau plans to promote the sites through the development of a new self guided "Freedom Seekers" tour itinerary, that originates in Elizabeth City and guides visitors to neighboring Network to Freedom sites in Edenton, Manteo, Creswell, Rich Square and Wilmington, N.C. June 1216, the public can learn more about the Underground Railroad through two displays exhibited at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. On loan from the NPS, a "Network to Freedom" display interprets the history, people and terms of the Underground Railroad. Developed by ECSU, a "Math of the Great Dismal Swamp" display focuses on the terrain and water quality of the Great Dismal Swamp. NASA’s Earth Science Education Office/The MUSPIN Office of Goddard Flight Center and ECSU funded this display. Located at 501 S. Water Street, the Museum of the Albemarle is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. The museum will be closed on Sunday, June 17. Admission is free. For additional information, contact the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (252) 3355330. Or go to www.discoverec.org Photo caption: Barbara Tagger, left, and Wanda McLean, a local researcher, unveil the ECSU marker for the audience with Pasquotank River, the first river in the United States to be recognized in the NPS Network to Freedom program, in view.