Disappearing into the Swamp
Lore, Legend and Life Abound at Dismal Swamp.
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the largest intact remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than one million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. While its name may conjure up eerie images of isolated and spooky swamplands, this treasure that straddles the border of these two states is teeming with beauty, wildlife, and legend.
Once encompassing 2,000 square miles, the swamp today is perhaps one-tenth its original size and is now a unique primeval forest inhabited by a variety of mammals, 21 species of reptiles, 58 species of turtles, lizards, salamanders, frogs and toads, and more than 200 species of birds.
Something else the Great Dismal Swamp has is its reputation. In fact, it has several reputations – and we all know reputations can be good or bad. It is no surprise to hear that the very mention of “the Great Dismal Swamp” leaves a negative impression and conjures up eerie images in the minds of many. That is strange since most Americans today have never seen nor experienced a swamp of any kind, much less a great and dismal one.
But the story goes that the swamp is more than eerie, it’s also haunted.
Discovered in 1665, Drummond Lake is the site of the oldest and best-known myth of the Dismal Swamp legends.
Irish poet Thomas Moore canonized the myth of Lady of the Lake in his 1803 poem, “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.”
Based on local legends about an Indian maid who died just before her wedding day and who is periodically seen paddling her ghostly white canoe across the water of Lake Drummond, Moore’s poem tells how the bereaved lover came to believe that his lost love had departed her grave and taken to the Swamp. He followed her and never returned but was reunited with his Lady of the Lake in death.
Through the years, hunters and fishermen claimed to have sighted the ghostly white canoe with its firefly lamp. Poet Edgar Allen Poe added to the myths with his 1827 poem “The Lake,” based on Lake Drummond.
This second reputation is one of major historical significance and involves the “maroons.” This curious choice of words was a period term given to run-away slaves who sought refuge and freedom in the vast and inhospitable womb of a place no one would dare go looking for them.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service literature, “Stories about escaped slaves in the swamp have been a part of local lore for centuries. Recent studies in the Great Dismal Swamp, however, have uncovered archaeological evidence to conﬁrm the presence of maroon colonies.”
It continues, “From the early days of European exploration, the Great Dismal Swamp was considered a wild and inhospitable place. William Byrd II, who led a surveying party through the swamp in 1732 called it a “vast body of mire and nastiness… very unwholesome for inhabitants. Nearby residents believed that the fog in the swamp carried diseases, and rumor held that lions lived in the swamp’s depths. As a result, the swamp was largely avoided by settlers.”
Activity and development around the Great Dismal Swamp began in 1728 when Byrd proposed the concept of the Dismal Swamp canal. As a professional surveyor, George Washington did the actual surveying for that canal in 1763. Although the canal would directly connect Washington’s plantation to this valuable transportation source and give him a direct economic benefit, at the time it was not seen as a conflict of interest. Work on the canal would not begin for another 30 years, in 1893. George Washington was then the new President of the United States.
After extremely arduous labor, by 1805, slaves had cut trees and hand dug enough of a waterway for the first flat-bottom boats to traverse some of the narrow and shallow canal. It would not be until 1825 that the original canal was completed. It was enlarged substantially in 1899 to nearly its present form. It is now part of the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile maritime route from Boston to the southern tip of Florida. Ironically, the lowest point in those 3,000 miles is through the Great Dismal Swamp.
Today, the refuge has earned the reputation as an amazing and vast wildlife sanctuary. The last major milestone was in 1974 when the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was created. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Dismal Swamp Act of 1974 directs the federal agency to manage the area “for the primary purpose of protecting and preserving a unique and outstanding ecosystem, as well as protecting and perpetuating the diversity of animal and plant life therein.”
It charges the management of the refuge to “stabilize conditions in as wild a character as possible, consistent with achieving the refuge’s stated objectives.”
A secondary purpose, according to the 1974 act, includes promoting a “public use program when not in conflict with the primary objectives of the refuge.”
Refuge Manager Chris Lowie, a seasoned veteran of the USFWS, has been at his current post for 10 years and 13 years before that in other agency positions. He describes the refuge as “an amazing, beautiful place that has its own ecosystem.” That is, as he explained, “It is not a swamp year-round; it has seasons where everything changes. It is so dynamic.”
Today, visitors venture on to the refuge for a variety of reasons, most of which are not related to the legends. “The public is intrigued,” says Lowie. They have heard about this unusual place and want to see what it is all about, he explains. “They are particularly fascinated that there is this enormous place full of wildlife such as bears, for goodness sake, only miles from a cosmopolitan place (Hampton Roads) with a million and a half people.”
Many others come because of the swamp’s reputation and history of the maroon colonies, a largely unknown piece of American history. Do any still come because of the legends and lore?
“Not a great degree,” he says. But when asked about his personal take on the legends and lore, for instance, about sightings of ‘The Lady of the Lake,’ Lowie says, “I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Lowie says that only a few months ago, a seasoned biologist of 20 years whom he describes as “a very credible source,” said he saw a group of people who just seemed disappeared out at the swamp. No car, nothing.
Another interesting aside, Lowie says, is that all southern swamps were also historically termed “dismals.”
The refuge is a short day-trip from the Outer Banks and Lowie suggests spring and fall as the best seasons to visit. The refuge acts a bird sanctuary and massive migrations occur during these seasons. There are more than 200 bird species on the refuge, and it hosts several bird festivals throughout the year.
“Give yourself several hours,” Lowie advises. “We really do have something for everyone. There are boardwalks for short outings, trails up to 30 miles long, and you can even drive through parts of the refuge without ever getting out of your car.”
Part of the Great Dismal Swamp is also designated as a North Carolina State Park.
The park was created as a state natural area in 1974 with the help of The Nature Conservancy and in 2007, the N.C. General Assembly re-designated it as a state park. Dismal Swamp State Park opened to the public in 2008, marking the first time that public access to the Dismal Swamp was made possible in North Carolina.
Dismal Swamp State Park covers 14,443 acres of protected land on the North Carolina/Virginia border. The visitor center for the park is three miles south of the border on U.S. Route 17 in South Mills. A unique hydraulic arm bridge that spans the Dismal Swamp Canal serves as the access point. Regular interpretive programs about the wetlands ecology and history of the famed swamp complement museum-quality exhibits in the visitor center.
Features of the park include the 22-mile long Dismal Swamp Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway, over 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, and an accessible half-mile boardwalk through the swamp.
The State Park offers a huge variety of additional features and activities that are best explored at https://www.ncparks.gov/dismal-swamp-state-park.
Park Ranger Joseph Hiatt, in just his first year there, already has an experienced and articulate voice for the swamp. “Due to our unique location on a major highway and on the Intercostal Waterway, we have auto traffic from all over the country and boating traffic from all over the world. We had a total of 135,000 visitors in 2016.”
Interestingly, he observes, “It doesn’t take long for someone who has spent time in the Dismal Swamp to see why so many legends have emerged ever since it was discovered. Our swamp sometimes seems to have a mind of its own.”
But he concludes, “A lot of people comment on how the Dismal Swamp is not dismal at all, but what a beautiful, lively place it is.”
That takes us back to examine that original reputation. Webster defines “dismal” as “1. Days marked as unlucky in medieval calendars, disasterous, dreadful. 2. Showing or causing gloom or depression. 3. Lacking interest or merit.”
We now see none of that is correct.
Author’s note: As an adventuresome, outdoorsy boy, I grew up in swampy south Louisiana. I spent many hours of my childhood alone exploring cow pastures, the deep woods and – swamps. Lots and lots of swamps. I could see then that they were incredible places of silence, beauty, grace and life. They were teeming with stuff going on all around that would fascinate any youthful explorer. I remember finding my first bullfrog eggs in a secluded pond. I could not believe what I was seeing. Naturally, I had to bring some home to hatch.
I learned later, as an adult, that swamps have more life per square foot than any other place on Earth. They are literally the “Greenhouse of Life on Earth.” That is a very positive image and reputation, indeed. My grandmother had an expression that I did not understand as a child. I understand it now. She would often say, “You might as well shoot a dog as give it a bad name.”
The Great Dismal Swamp is great, it is dismal, and it has been many things to many people and creatures. It has reputations. But the good one is not Dismal at all, rather it is truly great.♦
James D. Charlet has 24 years of experience as a classroom teacher of North Carolina history and 25 years permanent residency on Hatteras Island with expertise in its history, geography and culture. He is the author of two textbooks (NC Studies and Wright Brothers) and numerous magazine articles on Outer Banks subjects