Dismal Swamp State Park: Featured Park of the Month
Just the name—Dismal—seems to make many people shy away. Those of us who take care of this hidden gem hear it all the time: “Must be pretty dreary out here!” Or especially on rainy days, “Well, the name is fitting.” But come and wander around, spend time out here and really get to know the place, and you’ll find that it is actually the precise opposite of the dictionary definition of “dismal”: “causing gloom or dejection; gloomy; dreary; cheerless; melancholy.” The Dismal Swamp is vibrant and very much alive. Once you discover the facts behind the myths, the names of the vines that shroud much of the forest, which small and usually innocuous animals make the strange sounds emanating from the heart of the Swamp…not only is it not a scary place but an inviting one.
Let’s start with the name itself. Early European settlers referred to low-lying, wet areas as “dismals.” Because of its vast original size of nearly 1.3 million acres, this “dismal” became known as the Great Dismal. Adding “Swamp” to the name is really a tad redundant, but nonetheless, that is what we call it today. Even its soil and water are unique. The Swamp is covered in a layer of peat soil, like what you might buy at a home improvement store for your vegetable garden. The peat can be anywhere from 3 to 15 deep and is rich in organic matter. In that soil today grow mainly pines; oaks and other hardwoods; and an assortment of small trees, shrubs, and colorful wildflowers.
Another aspect of the Swamp you will notice as soon as you arrive is the dark color of the water. All the water in the Swamp appears black at first glance but brown upon closer examination. It has been compared to coffee, Coca-Cola, sweet tea, and root beer, among other things. Many assume that it must be dirty and are surprised to learn that it is actually some of the cleanest water there is. The color comes not from dirt but tannins, compounds found in trees that leach into the water. As a result, the water has a very low pH—around 4-5—that helps to inhibit bacterial growth (and the growth of just about anything else, including fish. Only the hardiest species can be found here). Swamp water stays fresh for a very long time, which made it valuable to the early settlers, who used it for drinking on transatlantic crossings.
Many of those same settlers certainly did fear the place, though—they also saw no value in swampland and set about trying to drain it so that it could be farmed instead. Consequently, over 100 miles of ditches crisscross the area today, and parts of it are so dry it doesn’t even look like a swamp. Farming efforts, however, failed, as the land did not get dry enough, so the focus shifted to timber. The Swamp’s stands of bald cypress and Atlantic White-Cedar—a tree that is now endangered—came down and out in the form of shingles and other valuable products. Tour the trails today and the woods will give you the impression of longevity and a pristine wilderness, when in reality signs of human influence are rampant. Today’s trees are relatively young, as every portion of the Swamp has been logged at least once.
Beyond timber, people have found myriad uses for the Swamp over the years. The park’s eastern border is the historic Dismal Swamp Canal, opened in 1805 and the longest, continuously operating manmade waterway in the country. In its heyday, lighter boats hauled shingles and other goods up and down the 22-mile long Canal. Just as fascinating as the Canal itself is the story of the people who built it. Enslaved people labored for 12 years to construct the arrow-straight canal linking the Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. They progressed perhaps 10 feet a day under conditions that no one would want to bear: waist-deep muck, swarms of biting insects, and of course the risk of encountering a venomous snake. Some were able to earn the freedom through the wages they were credited for their work; others could not and bravely set out seek freedom for themselves. The Dismal Swamp became an integral part of the Underground Railroad and even a permanent home to previously enslaved people who became known as “maroons.” The myths and tall tales about swamp creatures and ghosts provided excellent protection, as few were willing to venture in to pursue the fugitives, and the Swamp produced many food sources, including small game and a variety of edible fruits and berries.
Later on, moonshiners found the Swamp to be the perfect place to hide illegal stills. You can see a replica just a quarter mile hike from the visitor center, and the remains of real stills along the Supplejack Trail. Moonshining here began during the Prohibition era and continued possibly into the 1960s. It’s easy to see what made the Swamp so appealing to these lawbreakers and how challenging it must have been for the federal agents tasked with finding and destroying those stills!
Today, we have come full circle and realize that Dismal has much to offer and great value in its natural state. It catches and holds water like a sponge and also helps filter pollutants out of that water before it reaches the river and ultimately the ocean. It offers the largest undeveloped tract of habitat in the eastern US to animals like black bear, fox, bobcat, raccoon, and more. Park staff have documented more than 160 species of birds and 69 species of butterfly. Snakes, turtles, frogs, and salamanders abound if one knows where and how to look. Where early Europeans cut down timber, we now hold annual tree planting events in an attempt to reestablish the cypress and Atlantic White-Cedars. Where the settlers tried to drain the Swamp, we now build water control structures to keep more water in it. University researchers check monitoring wells and vegetation plots to track the progress of these efforts. So much more happens in this place than first meets the eye.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the Swamp offers us people an escape…hike into the heart of the park and close your eyes. The silence is so overpowering you can hear it, loud and clear. Despite the centuries of human influence, it is and always will be a wild, special place.
Dismal Swamp State Park is located off U.S. Route 17 south of South Mills in the northeastern part of North Carolina.
~Written by Ranger Katie Sanford, Dismal Swamp State Park. Katie has been a ranger since 2013 and is graduate of Virginia Tech where she studied Wildlife Sciences. She lives in Newland, NC (Pasquotank County) where she has what she calls a “Homestead Zoo “consisting of poultry, waterfowl, goats, dogs and cats as well as her garden where she grows ornamental and edible plants and flowers. When she is not tending to the land, either at home or the state park, she loves riding her Tennessee Walking Horse.