Great Dismal Swamp

I love it when I go somewhere and expect one thing but get another. I went to the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, to see a swamp and the birds that usually go with it. Instead I saw canals and a glimpse into the past.

What I expected to see

The Dismal is Named: Colonel Byrd led a band of surveyors into the Swamp in 1728 to run a dividing line between the disputing colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. They were almost devoured by yellow flies, chiggers and ticks. Under these conditions, Byrd is credited with the “Dismal” name. Europeans also referred to areas where water stood for long periods of time as “dismals”.

Dismal Swamp Canal: In May 1728. George Washington made his first visit and suggested draining the swamp and digging a north-south canal to connect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound (see my previous post). They hoped to drain the Swamp, harvest the trees and use the land for farming. The Canal is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the US, opened in 1805. The canal was dug completely by hand; most of the labor was done by slaves hired from nearby landowners. It took approximately 12 years of back-breaking construction under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which opened in 1805.

Juniper Water: The Swamp water is amber-colored and unusually pure, preserved by the tannic acids from he bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees. These conditions make it difficult for bacteria to grow. Before the days of refrigeration, water from the Swamp was a highly prized commodity on sailing ships.

Lore & Legend: The older and best known of the Dismal Swamp legend is that of the Lady of the Lake, a myth the Irish poetry Thomas Moore canonized in 1803 in his poem “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp“. Most good legends are rooted in reality. Eerie lights in the middle of the night are not uncommon and have been attributed to ghosts, private, madmen, or flying saucers. Foxfire is he source of this strange lights.


Maroons & The Underground Railroad: For centuries escaped slaves came to Great Dismal Swamp seeking freedom. For some, the sprawl of the densely forested wetlands was only a stopping point on their journey northward. For others, the swamp became a permanent home where they established hidden, largely self-sufficient settlements. They were called maroons, a word that comes from the French word marronage, meaning “to flee,” or “to be removed.” Maroon communities developed throughout the American South, especially in inaccessible swampy areas. Because the maroons lived in secrecy, it is impossible to known exactly how many people called Great Dismal Swamp home. Recent research suggests that as many as 50,000 maroons may have lived here over the period of years between the mid 1600’s and the Civil War.

Moonshine in the Swamp: Moonshiners took refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp to make their whiskey. It was quite the operation. There was a Boiler, Cooker, Doubler/Thumper, Dry Barrel and Condenser.

Moonshine Operation

Dismal Swamp State Park has a wonderful visitor center and trails to walk

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