George Washington tried to drain it. Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired by the escaped slaves hiding in it. Loggers worked it for centuries. Yet it remains one of the least-known unspoiled spots in the East.
Vast and ancient, sprawling across the borders of Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp is one of the largest natural areas on the East Coast, encompassing some 170 square miles. It is part of a series of federally protected wetlands that includes the Everglades, the Okefenokee, and the Congaree swamp of South Carolina, and like many of America’s great wilderness areas, it has been exploited, misused, and stripped of much of its natural wealth. It has been host to roughnecks, poets, fugitives, and warring armies. Yet as one explores its waterways today, the Great Dismal’s serene beauty appears untouched by human history.
I put into the main canal of the swamp, launching from a boat ramp at a public parking lot off U.S. Route 17 in Virginia, and my canoe moves silently into water the color of espresso. A few paddle strokes and the world is transformed: A river otter glides noiselessly across the 50-foot-wide canal before sounding in one smooth movement; a wounded blue-green dragonfly with a wingspan as large as my hand flails on the surface and then is yanked below in a splash; an ancient-looking turtle, probably a yellow-bellied slider, pretends to be part of a stump and then plops into the water like a stone as I approach. The only denizens that aren’t shy are the small yellow horseflies, whose rainbow eyes look like groovy California sunglasses. Bright with flowers and inhabited by 200 species of songbirds, the Great Dismal doesn’t seem dismal in the least. In the 1600s, when English settlers first explored the Virginia lowlands, the word dismal actually came to mean “swamp” in the region, and the two words were used interchangeably, but the connotation always encompassed danger and foulness. Writing in the 1720s, Col. William Byrd II of Virginia summed up the attitudes of his day when he described the Great Dismal as a “horrible desart” with “vapours which infest the air and causing ague and other distempers to the neighboring inhabitants.”
As I paddle south, a fluid corridor with leafy walls suddenly appears to my right, leading off ruler-straight into the distance. The Feeder Ditch, an ignominious name for such a lovely route, was dug out in 1812. On it the modern world melts away into a realm of trees and water that feels very similar to what William Byrd would have known. The 3.5-mile-long Feeder leads directly to the freshwater heart of the swamp, a 2.7-by-2.3-mile open expanse called Lake Drummond. The lake is named after William Drummond, a seventeenth-century governor of North Carolina who, legend says, got lost in the swamp with a group of hunters. All but Drummond perished; he eventually staggered out ragged, hungry, and full of descriptions of a vast body of water deep in the swamp.
As I headed up toward the lake, the last quarter of the Feeder gets wilder. Limbs hang overhead, and I must navigate around large fallen logs that lie like alligators in the water. At the end the sky opens up before you flanked by majestic gnarled cypress trees, and the world once again is transformed.
Lake Drummond feels ancient and dreamlike. On the open water the yellow flies at last depart, and the huge cypresses form prehistoric-looking forest islands in the black, shallow water. Millions of years ago this region was at the bottom of the sea, and the sandy ridges along its western edge, the Suffolk Escarpment, was the coastline. The sea dropped 300 feet during the last ice age, and a forest grew where waves had crashed. When the glaciers melted and the sea rose to its current level, the forest became a wetland. The acidic sap and juices from its junipers, gums, and cypresses prevented fallen vegetation from decaying, and for millennia it piled up as peat, which today lies 10 feet thick. Five thousand years ago the swamp was the hunting grounds of native peoples whose trading network reached as far as the Ohio Valley. Dennis Blanton, director of the Center for Archeological Research at the College of William and Mary, has studied many bolas found there, long tethers weighted with round stones that were flung to entangle prey. European colonists found that the swamp’s tea-colored water stayed drinkable longer and used casks of it for sea voyages. It is said that Comm. Matthew Perry had barrels of it aboard when he made his trip to Japan in 1853.
Bland Simpson recommends seeing the swamp in early spring or in mid-October, when the forest is ablaze with autumnal colors and the biting bugs have gone. Simpson grew up near the North Carolina edge of the swamp, and when he isn’t teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina or playing with his bluegrass band, The Red Clay Ramblers, he can often be found deep in the Great Dismal. In his 1998 book, The Great Dismal, a Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir , he recounts adventures he had while camping at the Feeder Ditch Spillway, which is run by the Army Corps of Engineers and sits a few hundred yards from the shore of Lake Drummond. He recalls nights out on the lake drinking rye whiskey and watching the full moon rise in ghostly splendor over the dark waters. He says 20 or 30 small stiltlegged cabins surrounded the lake in the 1920s and 1930s. Fishing for crappie and bullhead catfish is still excellent. One old swamper named William Crockett used to guide visitors out onto the lake in the forties and fifties and sing from memory the “Ballad of the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” which the Irish poet Sir Thomas Moore wrote in 1803. Based on what Moore said was an old Indian legend, the ballad tells of a young man driven mad by his sweetheart’s death, who vainly seeks her ghost on Lake Drummond: “And she’s gone to the Lake / of the Dismal Swamp / Where, all night long / by a fire-fly lamp, / She paddles her white canoe.”
George Washington slept here. He surveyed the Great Dismal in 1763, later camped by the shores of Lake Drummond and discovered, contrary to popular belief about swamps, that water didn’t flow in but poured out. The lake turned out to be some 20 feet above sea level. Washington, fresh from leading Virginia’s militia in the French and Indian War, wanted to enlarge his lands through speculation. The Great Dismal Swamp fired his imagination. Where 35 years before Byrd’s team, had seen a fetid malarial hell, the young Washington envisioned a land brimming with possibility. He called it “a glorious paradise.” Charles Royster, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, explains: “Men like Robert ‘King’ Carter and William Byrd had staked out land in the late seventeenth century and essentially had given it to themselves through the medium of the government. So Washington’s generation thought, ‘I want that too. I want to get rich the way they did.'”
If the lake is the beating heart of the swamp, then the scores of canals men dug connecting it to the outside world are its aorta. Along the northern edge of the lake, the Washington Ditch opens in the foliage like a shimmering pathway into darkness. The shallow canal was the first to cut all the way through to Lake Drummond and was the start of Washington’s grand vision for the swamp. After surveying the Great Dismal, he wanted to drain it and turn it into a huge plantation. In 1763, he gathered a group of investors, several of them his relatives, and formed a syndicate, Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp also known by the less romantic-sounding name Dismal Swamp Company. Shortly thereafter the company bought 40,000 acres for the equivalent of $20,000 in today’s dollars and began digging the five-mile Washington Ditch. A small logging settlement called Dismal Town went up next to the ditch to serve as the company’s barracks and headquarters. It was a very busy year.
Before long things started going wrong. The swamp was either too wet and drowned everything or too dry and was swept by forest fires. Washington tried growing rice, but conditions weren’t right. In his comprehensive 1999 work The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company , Royster makes clear that the adventurers were overly optimistic about both the fertility of the land and how fast they could turn a profit from it. He also points out that this kind of risky land speculation was widespread in the 1700s. The Ohio River Valley, the Piedmont, even the District of Columbia were part of land schemes by the Founding Fathers that often were built more on fantasies of wealth than on real promise.
I beach my canoe at the mouth of the Washington Ditch and walk up the wide gravel towpath beside it. Slaves used to push loaded barges up and down the ditch with long poles, walking along paths like this one. All the canals had them. But today the rice farms, Jericho Mill, and the old Dismal Town are gone, reclaimed by the swamp. A couple of miles up, the path connects with the Washington Ditch parking lot, and a large metal sign marks where Dismal Town once stood. There a boardwalk built by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs an eighth of a mile into the forest in a circular path, letting you enter the swamp’s natural beauty without getting muddy feet.
Before the Civil War, most of the men who cut timber or shingles for the Dismal Swamp Company were slaves. They poled slim rafts up the canals or drove two-wheel mule carts along corduroy roads made of gum tree logs sunk into the peat. Many of the men had dug the canals they worked, and they lived in semiautonomy in shantytowns deep in the forest where white men rarely ventured. The Dismal Swamp became their domain. “There was an understanding between the whites and the blacks,” Royster explains. “The blacks would live in the swamp several days a week, and as long as they provided a certain quota of logs or shingles, the whites were satisfied and left them alone.”
Not all blacks who worked in the swamp were slaves though. Some saved up and bought their freedom, and others were escaped slaves in hiding. According to Tommy Bogger, a historian at Norfolk State University, slaves began running away to the swamp in the late 1600s. There is heated debate among scholars about whether colonies of them could have survived independently there, but Bogger is convinced there were small groups that discreetly hired themselves out to shingle crews in exchange for food and provisions. No one has any hard evidence either way, but truth or fiction, the idea of escaped slaves living together in the swamp seized America’s imagination. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem in 1842, “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp,” envisioning a tragic, hunted being living “like a wild beast in his lair.” Another Northerner inspired by the swamp was Harriet Beecher Stowe. In Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp , her 1856 follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin , the fictional son of the real-life insurrectionist Denmark Vesey escapes slavery, takes refuge in the Great Dismal, and is tracked down by slave hunters. The tales that whites created about Dismal Swamp runaways have proved far more durable than any memory of whatever lives ex-bondsmen actually led there.
Just below Portsmouth, Virginia, the 351-year-old community of Deep Creek is home to some 2,500 farmers and shipyard workers, among whom motorcycles, tattoos, and NASCAR T-shirts are popular. A century and a half ago, Deep Creek was a mill town where on Saturday nights lumberjacks and riverboatmen caroused with local women and played card games. It was a life that was possible only because the town was the gateway to the Dismal Swamp Canal, the main north-south artery through the wetlands. When the idea of a canal connecting the Albemarle Sound, in North Carolina, with the Chesapeake Bay was first proposed to Washington, he hesitated. But encouraged by both Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to link the states he agreed, and in 1793, 30 years after his swamp adventures began, he started the great canal. Teams of slaves spent 19 years digging it. First opened to navigation in 1 805, it ran 22 miles from Deep Creek down to South Mills, North Carolina. But it was little more than a muddy gulch, and the Feeder Ditch was dug in 1812 to raise its water level. By the 1830s nearly 200 miles of ditches, towpaths, and railroads had been built into the Great Dismal, allowing more people in than ever before. After the Civil War, everything changed. Slate and tin became the roofing materials of choice, because, unlike cedar, they didn’t burn. The Albemarle and Chesapeake, a river canal to the east, siphoned off shipping. Bypassed and ignored, the Dismal Swamp Canal fell into disrepair. The swamp’s timber industry also declined, as old-growth stands of juniper and cedar dwindled, and in 1899 the company sold its property to the logging king William Nelson Camp, who built it into the Union Camp Company, for the bargain price of $76,500. Thirty years later the federal government bought the canal for $50,000.
As I drove down Route 17, which runs alongside the Dismal Swamp Canal, I came to an intersection, at Glencoe Road, that locals call Wallaceton. By the water stood the ramshackle remains of the canal superintendent’s house, the only original Dismal Swamp Canal Company building still in existence. Across the road was a weathered blue house that belongs to descendants of George and Elizabeth Wallace. In her Civil War diary, Mrs. Wallace told how in 1862 her family farm became a no man’s land, occupied in turn by both Union and Confederate armies. Before the war was over, Federal bullets killed one of the Wallace’s sons and wounded another.
If you stand 515 feet north of the Virginia-Carolina border on Route 17, you will be on the original state line before it was moved in a resurvey in 1887. This was the site of one of the most notorious and colorful places in the swamp, the Lake Drummond Hotel, opened in 1829. It straddled the border and advertised itself as catering to “all the purposes of life as eating, drinking, sleeping, marrying, dueling....” During its more than 20 years, the 128-foot-long lodging acquired a reputation for duels, trysts, and weddings that took advantage of North Carolina’s lenient marriage laws. According to Bland Simpson, all you had to do to avoid Virginia’s rules was walk across the hall to the other state. Along the nearby roads you can see the remains of nineteenthcentury clapboard farmhouses, overgrown with trees, standing next to the modest tract houses that are their successors. Little graveyards with weathered headstones huddle in some places.
William Nelson Camp’s company worked the Great Dismal’s timber until it wasn’t worth the effort. On Washington’s birthday in 1973, Union Camp donated its holdings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with help from the Nature Conservancy. Now a National Wildlife Refuge, the Great Dismal attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year. Its venerable canal is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. After surviving 210 years of human exploitation, the ancient wetland is returning to the nature that never really left it. Its wild beauty endures, and when Bland Simpson writes about Lake Drummond in springtime, he could be describing what Washington first saw: “The Lake is pink-rimmed ... all the maple in the marge of the morass puts forth like cherry and the cypress that still stand in the shallows are the lightest and most feathery green. Fetterbush hangs abloom at the mouth of Jericho Ditch, bullfrogs ga-lunk there where the Lake just slides off into the Swamp and thrushes sing their looping, liquid songs.”