The Albemarle Sound
By Tom Harrison
Sound Trivia:
  • The Albemarle Sound is the largest freshwater sound in North America!
  • The Albemarle Sound combined with the adjoining Pamlico Sound for the second largest estuary on the East Coast, (second only to the Chesapeake Bay)
  • It was a saltwater sound up until 1830 when a storm closed the Currituck Inlet.
  • Named for the Duke of Albemarle, George Monck, one of the Lords Proprietors granted the province of Carolina in 1663 by King Charles II.
  • The Albemarle Sound is an expansive shallow freshwater sound that is fed by the Roanoke River pouring in 8,800 cubic feet of water per second, in addition to the Chowan River, Pasquotank River, and a half-dozen smaller streams. The Albemarle Sound is 60 miles long and 15 miles across at its widest point covering an area of 450 square miles. The sound and its tributaries are an extremely important spawning ground for a number of fish species.
The Albemarle Sound is of uniform depth and has no tidal action. Wind plays the only significant role in the rise and fall of the water level in the Sound. Claiborne Young, (the foremost expert on recreational boating in the southeastern United States and author of eight books on cruising the coastal states from North Carolina to the Gulf Coast), writes in his book, Cruising Guide to Coastal North Carolina, "The (Albemarle) sound is well marked for navigation. Unlike other North Carolina sounds, the Albemarle is mostly free of shoals. Generally, while in the sound, cruising captains can take a welcome break from their constant vigil over the depth sounder."

Whether paddling through the cypress studded bays amongst nesting ospreys, sailing the open water, or fishing for scrappy white perch and striped bass, the Albemarle Sound is a picturesque piece of God's creation waiting to be enjoyed! Washington County provides the perfect ports.
The Albemarle Sound is steeped in mystery and history. At the arrival of the first Europeans, the Albemarle Region was populated by members of the Algonquian Indians. On the shores of the eastern end of the sound Sir Walter Raleigh established the first permanent settlement in the New World. The fate of that colony remains an unsolved mystery. But many researchers believe that the colonist moved inland to the western end of the Albemarle Sound, (possibly even to what is today Washington County) assimilating with the Native Americans. In 1587 Governor John White had conversations with the colonist about "moving 50 miles inland". Fifty miles due west of the Roanoke Island settlement site by way of the Albemarle Sound lands you in the middle of Washington County! Further supporting this theory is the fact that during the previous year, in 1586, a party of English explorers traveled the 55 mile length of the Albemarle Sound and into the Roanoke River itself! John White created maps of the journey that show what is now Washington County.

Within fifty years English settlers were once more arriving in the Albemarle Region, but this time they came from the successful Virginia colonies. They came to farm, fish, and harvest the prolific timber growing in the area. The area was well known for ship's stores, (timbers for masts, spars, pitch and turpentine), as well as lumber, barrel staves, shingles, tobacco and fish. Plymouth and Mackeys became important trading ports by the 1700's. For example, in 1771, 144 sailing ships passed through the western Albemarle, many laden with molasses, brown sugar, coffee and tea from the West Indies to trade for the riches growing here in eastern Carolina.

As time passed the fishing methods became more sophisticated. During the 1800's enormous seines (a type of net), that stretched over a mile long were used to corral the herring, shad, and striped bass that were salted or iced and sold commercially.

There was an important ferry that operated across the Albemarle Sound between Edenton and Mackeys, from 1735 -1938. During the 1700's it was sailboat and took the better part of a day to cross the sound, depending on the wind. The golden age of Mackeys Ferry was from 1881-1910 when Norfolk Southern Railroad operated a ferry that carried passenger train cars. In 1910, Norfolk Southern completed a 28,000' railroad bridge across the Albemarle Sound from Edenton to Mackeys. At the time of completion, it was the longest bridge in the world! Later a highway swing bridge was constructed just east of the railroad bridge. That highway bridge was subsequently replaced by a new high-rise bridge in 1990.

During the Civil War one of the most amazing naval battles took place in the Albemarle Sound adjacent to Washington County near Pea Ridge. The most successful ironclad of the Civil War, that twice defeated the Union Navy, was the CSS Albemarle, named for the body of water in which the famous battle took place. On May 5, 1864, the CSS Albemarle was steaming to New Bern in support of the Confederate attack when it was engaged by a Union fleet consisting of 7 ships. A five and one half hour battle ensued with the Union Navy firing 557 shells at the CSS Albemarle before raising the signal flag to cease fire and give up the fight.