The Great Dismal Swamp


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.