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What are the straight, seemingly man-made canals in the marsh west of Wilmington?

Gareth McGrath

While there are still some remnants of the old, shallow irrigation canals that were used to cultivate rice fields adjacent to the region’s rivers, most of the canals and ditches that remain around today are the remnants of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging projects from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Those canals, often built out of old rice ditches, were used as flood-control and drainage devices for the region’s low-lying areas.

Those on Eagles Island, for example, helped control water levels in the island’s developed areas prior to there being a lock and dam system on the Cape Fear River, said Joe Sheppard, local history librarian with the New Hanover County library.

Time and a lack of maintenance has taken a toll on the structures, some of which were quite deep.

But they are still visible in many areas.

There are fewer traces, however, of the original rice canals, some of which were excavated by hand well before the Revolutionary War.

Some of the best remaining examples of the shallow canals can be found at Orton Plantation in Brunswick County.

The rice cultivation they were built to support collapsed several centuries ago due to cheaper imports and the deepening of the Cape Fear River. That allowed more and more saltwater to “pulse” up the waterway, turning freshwater creeks brackish and inundating fields and wetlands along the river.

Rice production, which was the reason European settlers came to Southeastern North Carolina in the first place, was eventually replaced with cotton and tobacco as the region’s key agricultural exports.

A view from above:

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Related links:

Was Pleasant Oaks Plantation, located along the Cape Fear River, ever a part of Orton Plantation?

Who are the first Cape Fear residents?

Before the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was constructed, how did travelers cross the Cape Fear River into Wilmington?

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