The Great Dismal Swamp is a geological wonder. For millions of years before the Swamp was formed, it was under the sea. It is viewed by naturalists and other scientists as one of the best outdoor laboratories in the world! This natural treasure emerged as a landform when the Continental Shelf made its last significant shift.
Just who discovered the Great Dismal and when is unknown. Colonel William Byrd II was a member of the commission that surveyed the North Carolina/Virginia state line through the Swamp in 1728 and provided the first extensive description of it. In May 1763, George Washington made his first visit to the Swamp and suggested draining it and digging a north-south canal through it to connect the waters of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Joining with several other prominent Virginians and North Carolinians, he formed two syndicates known as the Dismal Swamp Land Company and the Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp. This group hoped to drain the Swamp, harvest the trees, and use the land for farming.
The company purchased 40,000 acres of Swamp land for $20,000 in 1763. Washington directed the surveying and digging of the 5-mile long ditch from the western edge of the Swamp to Lake Drummond, known today as Washington Ditch. In the late 1700′s, Riddick Ditch was completed. Together these ditches provided a way to transport logs out of the Swamp and drain it as well. The Adventurers soon realized, however, that the task of draining the Swamp was enormous and gave up that part of their plan to concentrate on lumbering. They cut much of the cypress trees for use in shipbuilding and the cedars for shingles and other products.
By 1796, Washington had become disappointed in the management of the Dismal Swamp lumber business and contracted to sell his 1/12th share to “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, who never was able to come up with the purchase price. So Washington’s share passed on to his heirs upon his death in 1799.
Camp Mfg. Company, a predecessor of Union Camp, acquired all the Dismal Swamp Land Company’s property in 1909. Lumbering continued in the Swamp and by the 1950′s the last 20,000 acres of virgin timber were removed. In 1973, Union Camp donated its Virginia swamp holdings to the Nature Conservancy which, in turn, deeded it to the Department of the Interior for creation of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge consists of 107,000 acres of forested wetlands surrounding Lake Drummond, a 3,100 acre natural lake located in the heart of the swamp. William Drummond, the first Governor of North Carolina (1663-1667), discovered the oval lake which still bears his name.
Even though the average depth of the lake is only six feet, its unusually pure water is essential to the swamp’s survival. The amber-colored water is preserved by tannic acids from the bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees, prohibiting growth of bacteria. Before the days of refrigeration, water from the Swamp was a highly prized commodity on sailing ships. It was put in kegs and would stay fresh a long time. People spoke of the magical qualities of the Swamp’s tea-colored water and how, if it were regularly drunk, it prevented illness and promoted long life.
Underground Rail Road
The Great Dismal Swamp, located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has long been recognized as a mysterious place and a place in which people have easily lost their way. During slavery, many African Americans used the Great Dismal Swamp as a means to find their freedom. Some bondsmen, who were permitted to hire themselves out, earned enough money, through boat work on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal or through cedar and cypress shingle production to purchase their freedom. Others found refuge deep within the swamp, living off the land, and what they could steal. These “outlyers” established maroon communities on the higher points of the swamp. Still, for others, the swamp was a “stopping point” to get to Norfolk or Portsmouth, VA, or to the Albemarle Sound and Elizabeth City, NC where they could secure passage on a ship traveling north. During the Civil War US Colored Troops passed through the swamp in order to liberate enslaved people. Despite the method or living conditions, the swamp provided the means of freedom which so many sought.
Chronology of the Great Dismal Swamp
c1665 Lake discovered by William Drummond
1728 Dismal Swamp Canal proposed by William Byrd
1763 Lake Drummond charted by George Washington’s surveyor
1764 Dismal swamp Land Company chartered
1787 Dismal Swamp Canal authorized by Virginia Legislature
1790 Dismal Swamp Canal authorized by North Carolina Legislature
1793 Work on the Dismal Swamp Canal began
1802 William Farange builds first hostelry in Camden County, N.C.
1803 Thomas Moore wrote “THE LAKE OF THE DISMAL SWAMP”
1805 Dismal Swamp Canal began limited through navigation for flat boats
1810 Jericho Canal completed
1812 Feeder Ditch completed
1814 First recorded passage of a vessel other than a shingle flat
1818 President James Monroe visited the Dismal Swamp
1819 First Lottery held to raise funds for improving the Canal
1820 Second Lottery held
1822 Cross Canal completed
1823 First passage of completely loaded schooner “Rebecca Edwards”
1825 Erie Canal completed
1826 U.S.Congress purchased 600 shares of Dismal Swamp Company
1826 Dismal Swamp Canal enlarged as a shoal draft ship canal
1829 Third Lottery held
1829 Lake Drummond Hotel built
1829 President Andrew Jackson visited the Dismal Swamp Canal
1842 Moses Grandy, a former Camden County slave, dictates his autobiography in London.
1867 State of Virginia’s 600 share holdings sold at auction
1871 North West Canal closed by dam built to conserve water
1878 Congress sold its shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal
1888 Last sale of lumber harvested from the Dismal Swamp
1890 Emma K – Dismal Swamp’s favorite vessel – was built
1899 Dismal Swamp Canal enlarged in substantially its present form
1923 Largest Forest fire ever raged for 3 years consuming 150 square miles
1929 United States Government purchased the Lake Drummond Company 1952 Lake Drummond dried up there was no water in the Canal.
1974 Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge created
1989 Dismal Swamp Welcome Center opened
2004 Dismal Swamp Canal was included in the National Park Service’s
2005 The 200th anniversary of the Canal & 65th anniversary of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway 2005 Dismal Swamp Canal Trail opens to the public
2008 Dismal Swamp State Park opens to the public
2011 Largest fire in recent history. 9 square miles consumed