The Great Dismal Swamp


MANY SMALL TOWNS IN Virginia and North Carolina were still culturally isolated century ago, and their people didn’t often travel to cities like Philadelphia and New York, so when a carnival and circus !owner from Michigan decided to build a showboat to ply the backwaters of the low country, it was a sensation. The James Adams Floating Theatre was a huge, tug-pulled barge that could sit an audience of 500 and presented its own plays, performers, and playwrights. C. Richard Gillespie, a Maryland drama professor who wrote the definitive history of the Floating Theatre , says it produced plays written for American repertoire theaters, and concerts, as well. During its 27-year run, people came from miles around to see the spectacle when it arrived on the Dismal Swamp Canal. In 1925 the popular author Edna Ferber visited the Floating Theatre and gathered stories for a novel she later titled Show Boat . “It’s because of that boat that we have the novel and the musical and that wonderful Jerome Kern music,” Simpson says. “There would be no ‘O1’ Man River’ if Edna Ferber hadn’t come and ridden on the James Adams .”

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.”