A Visit to the Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp surely doesn’t draw visitors by the allure of its name, for there could hardly be less attractive appellation for the 111,000 acres of swampy forest land now a National Wildlife Refuge and popular spot for fishing, birding, hiking, biking, boating, and wildlife observation. Straddling the border of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, the name of the Great Dismal Swamp belies the natural beauty of the place as well as its varied history. From the time of its discovery by settlers in the early seventeenth century, the Great Dismal Swamp has captured imaginations, setting both minds and feet roving among the watery realm of juniper and cypress.

In the early days of the colonies, hunters, fishermen, and loggers used the Great Dismal Swamp for profit and adventure, utilizing the rich resources of the area as the cities of Virginia and North Carolina grew ever larger.  In 1728, Col. William Byrd II was enlisted with his survey crew to determine the dividing line between the two colonies, taking him into the heart of the swamp, which he found nearly impassable. Writing in his journal, he described the area as, “a horrible desert, with foul damps ascending without ceasing, corrupting the air, and rendering it unfit for respiration…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists. Not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it…” In contrast, George Washington, who visited the swamp the first of seven times in 1763, found it, “a glorious paradise, abounding in wildfowl and game.”

The swamp itself is indeed both beautiful and hazardous, as well as unique in many ways. While most swamps are located in places lower than their surrounding lands, the Great Dismal Swamp is actually on a hillside 20 feet above sea-level, and rather than the more usual water flowing into the swamp, .seven rivers flow outward from the central Lake Drummond.  In most swamps, the moist heat and darkness make ideal conditions for rapid decay of matter, but the water in the Great Dismal is so acidic due to the leaching of juniper and cypress trees that there is little bacterial growth, and as a result, debris accumulates year after year; the Great Dismal Swamp is one of the few places where peat is formed.  Because of its acidity, the water is also slow to become stagnant, and Commodore Peary is reported to have taken casks of the swamp water with him on his famous trip to Japan.  In 1888, author Robert Arnold promoted the water of the Swamp as ‘the elixir of life.’

The dense cover, abundance of food, and impenetrability of the swamp combine to make a good home for many large animals such as deer, bears, bobcats, and raccoons. The swamp also has a huge population of trees not found in normal swamps, and because the swamp is located on the north-south iso-thermal line, there are many animals and plants, such the cotton-mouth moccasin, Spanish moss, and shrews, that are found either no further north, or no farther south. Areas of quicksand, dense vegetations, and peat, which can burn for years after a forest fire, made the Great Dismal Swamp a treacherous and foreboding place to the early Americans.

Despite the dangers, both the Colonel and the future president saw the possibilities inherent in the wealth of timber and wildlife of the swamp. Byrd was the first to propose the Dismal Swamp Canal to provide an outlet for the agricultural lands of the interior to a deep water port in Virginia, a construction later initiated by Washington: the oldest waterway in use today on the North American continent. Washington was also instrumental in forming the Dismal Swamp Land Company that was responsible for draining and foresting parts of the swamp. Logging continued into the 1970’s, and effects of the industry can still be seen today, as the 150 roads cut through the swamp to access the timber disrupted the hydrology of the swamp, creating less favorable environmental conditions; both animal and plant diversity declined.

In the time between the establishment of the Dismal Swamp Land Company and the cessation of logging, the Great Dismal Swamp acquired a mythic status.  The Dismal Swamp Hotel, built the same time as the canal, was built along the state lines, and was often the site of clandestine meetings, smuggling, duels, and gambling as each state could not prosecute beyond its borders. According to legend, the line ran through the center of the parlor, and the gamblers would simply move to the other side of the room depending on which lawman came to inspect; no trace of the hotel is left today. Many times the subject of poems and books, the Great Dismal Swamp was featured in Irish poet Sir Thomas Moore’s, “A Ballad – The Lake of Dismal Swamp” based on a Native American legend,  and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Slave in Dismal Swamp,” in 1842. Dred – A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, featuring the title character as an escaped slave living in the swamp and preaching retribution for the evils of slavery.

The Great Dismal Swamp was used by many slaves to gain their freedom, either by working as bondsmen and hiring themselves out to boat work or shingle production or as a hiding place for runaway slaves.  Some established ‘maroon’ colonies on the higher, drier parts of the swamp, living off the land and what they could steal.  Even in his original survey of the swamp Col. Byrd had written, “It is certain many Slaves shelter themselves in this Obscure Part of the World, nor will any of their Righteous neighbors discover them.”  Slaves were also the primary work force used to build the canals and roads that crisscrossed the swamp.  The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America (1843) describes the life of a slave working in the Albemarle region and in the Great Dismal Swamp as a ferryman and a canal boatman, finally earning enough money to purchase his freedom.

Visitor’s today will see a slightly less wild and intimidating Great Dismal Swamp, tamed as it was by agriculture and logging, but the historical connections still remain, seen in the various canals and remnants of African-American communities and homesteads.  The swamp still provides excellent opportunities to explore the natural habitat that so astounded its first visitors. Over 200 hundred species of birds nest in the swamp, as well as otter, bats, raccoon, mink, foxes, squirrels, deer bobcats, and bears. Aside from wildlife viewing, visitors can boat and fish in the lakes and canals, and hike or bike the many trails. Hunting is also allowed during certain periods of the year.  

To visit the Great Dismal Swamp:

The refuge headquarters are in Suffolk, VA as are some trailheads, but you can still get into the swamp from the North Carolina side through the Dismal Canal Welcome Center. Trail bikes are available at for visitors to explore the paved Dismal Swamp Canal Trail.

The Dismal Canal Welcome Center
2356 US Highway 17 N
South Mills, NC 27976
Toll-free phone: (877) 771-8333
Local phone: (252) 771-8333
Email: dscwelcome@camdencountync.gov

The Visitor’s Center also holds several events throughout the year, such as the Paddle for the Border kayak event and the Guts and Glory Walk through the Great Dismal Swamp.

Elizabeth City, NC is the closest city to stay in while visiting the Swamp.


For Further Reading about the Great Dismal:

Arnold, Robert. The Dismal Swamp and Lake Drummond. Early Recollections. Vivid Portrayals of Amusing Scenes. Norfolk, VA: Green, Burke & Gregory, 1888.

Davis, Hubert J. The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore, and Science. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Pub. Co., 1971.

Duke, Alvah. Dismal Swamp Wildlife. Chicago: Adams Press, 1973.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. http://www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp/

O’Donnell, William James. The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp. Thesis: Dept. of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1993.

Pugh, Jesse F. and Frank T. Williams. The Hotel in the Great Dismal Swamp, and Contemporary Events Thereabouts. Old Trap, NC: J.F. Pugh, 1964.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred – A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Robert S. Levine, ed. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.


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