- Historic Sites
The Great Dismal Swamp
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.
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
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.