History Cheers Visitors to Great Dismal Swamp

Times Staff Writer

They made her a grave, too cold and damp

For a soul so warm and true;

She's gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp

She paddles her white canoe. . . .

--Thomas Moore, 1803

For centuries in this huge mysterious swamp astride the Virginia-North Carolina line, a marshy place--thick with a tangle of dense forest, vines, canebrakes, briers and shrub bogs--there have been reported sightings of a ghostly woman paddling her white canoe.

It goes back to an Indian legend handed down one generation to the next, a legend repeated to this day.

An Indian maiden died just before her wedding, so the story goes, and she is still seen from time to time--especially on gloomy, foggy days and moonlit nights--paddling her white canoe across Lake Drummond, a circular three-mile-diameter lake in the middle of the Great Dismal Swamp.

The lake, you should know, is named after William Drummond, first Colonial governor of North Carolina (1663-1667), who sited it while a member of a survey party. Drummond was later hanged, drawn and quartered for being a traitor.

Other well-known 19th-Century poets and authors, in addition to Thomas Moore, wrote about this place, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," who did an 1839 novel called "Dred: a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp."

No one lives here today, but runaway slaves did before the Emancipation Proclamation. History records that more than 1,000 slaves lived in the thick undergrowth--many surreptitiously eking out a living making shingles. Stowe's novel "Dred" was about the slaves who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp.

The runaway slaves were hunted down by men following packs of dogs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was so disturbed by that inhumane practice that in 1842, he penned the poem "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp," which began:

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp

The hunted Negro lay;

He saw the fire of the midnight camp,

And heard at times a horse's tramp

And a bloodhound's distant bay...

The Great Dismal Swamp can be a spooky place. Strange glows and eerie lights spiraling up in the middle of the night in the dense watery thickets are luminescent, caused by burning methane from decaying vegetation.

All who live nearby recount a litany of folklore, swamp tales about characters like an old lady named Aunt Paula who haunts the neighborhood.

The Great Dismal Swamp, 78,000 acres in Virginia and 26,000 acres in North Carolina, today is one of 430 U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges in America.

"We get phone calls everyday from people who want to know if the name is a joke. They ask: 'What in the world is a Great Dismal Swamp?' " said Jim Oland, 44, manager of the refuge. "They cannot imagine what it is.

"It can be pretty dismal on hot, humid summer days when the mosquitoes, yellow flies, ticks and red bugs are biting," Oland admitted.

There is minimal public use of the area other than deer hunting in the fall and bird watching mostly in the spring. No one is permitted to drive into the Great Dismal Swamp, but there is a network of 150 miles of old dirt roads for hiking or bicycling. Fish and Wildlife personnel use the roads to patrol and manage the area.

If George Washington had had his way, there would be no Great Dismal Swamp today. As it is, the swamp is one-third of what it was.

Washington visited the swamp many times, the first time in May, 1763. He envisioned draining the swamp with a series of canals, harvesting the timber and then converting the swamp into rice and cotton farms.

"In spring, water flows throughout the woods a foot deep and deeper," Oland noted. "Most of the rest of the year this is all marshland, but you don't see water everywhere as you do during spring."

Washington and six friends, including Patrick Henry, formed two companies, the Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp and the Dismal Swamp Land Co., to log and eventually farm the swamp.

A sign marks the site of Dismal Town, Washington's headquarters, near the beginning of 4 1/2-mile-long Washington Ditch, which was dug by one of the First President's companies and is still here.

"But the ventures failed. If Washington had been successful, the Great Dismal Swamp would be but a memory today," Oland said. "If Washington had the equipment and modern-day techniques, the swamp would have been gone a long time ago."

Through the years, loggers, however, did harvest most of the cypress and Atlantic-white-cedar (juniper) stands in the swamp. The loggers built the dirt roads and the drainage ditches that are in the Great Dismal Swamp. Cypress, once the predominant tree in the swamp, now covers only about 12% of it.

What's left of the Great Dismal Swamp became a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 22, 1973, George Washington's birthday, when the Union Camp Corp. deeded 49,000 acres, its landholdings in the Great Dismal Swamp, to the federal government in return for a tax write-off of $12.6 million. It is one of the few large wild areas left in the East.

On a hike along a mile-long boardwalk through the swamp, Oland talked about Fish and Wildlife's 125-year master plan to manage the Great Dismal Swamp.

"Most places have 5- or 10-year master plans. Not here. Our goal is to try to bring the swamp back to what it was in George Washington's time, to restore the ecosystem that was here," he explained.

"Of course, that will never happen in my lifetime. The cypress trees will require an awful long time to get back to the numbers that were here. Same for the Atlantic white cedar. Red maples have taken over as the predominant tree. We will have to cut way back on the red maples."

The Great Dismal Swamp is alive with black bears, white-tailed deer, otters, minks, beavers, bobcats, water moccasins, rattlesnakes and other poisonous snakes, flying squirrels, bats, wood ducks, barred owls, yellow-bellied and spotted turtles, butterflies, katydids, a small indigenous shrew and much much more.

More than 230 species of birds are here at various times during the year. Now the swamp is a cacophony of 25 million blackbirds that fly in every winter.

It is home for one of the last native breeding populations in the East of black bear--in excess of 500. There are, however, no alligators in this swamp.

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