Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1973 when the Union Camp Corporation of Franklin, Virginia, donated 49,100 acres (199 km2) of land to The Nature Conservancy, which the following year transferred the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

cypress trees in Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, VirginiaBald Cypress trees in Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wynn/USFWS

The Great Dismal Swamp is a large swamp in the Coastal Plain Region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, between Norfolk, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The refuge was officially established through the Dismal Swamp Act of 1974, and today consists of over 112,000 acres (450 km2) of forested wetlands.

Some estimates place the size of the original swamp at over one million acres.

Outside the boundaries of the refuge, the state of North Carolina has preserved and protected additional portions of the swamp through the establishment of the Dismal Swamp State Park. The park protects 22 square miles (57 km2) of forested wetland.

A 45,611-acre (184.58 km2) remnant of the original swamp was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1973, in recognition of its unique combination of geological and ecological features.

The origin of Lake Drummond, one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, is not entirely clear as there is no apparent network of natural streams emptying into the lake.

Archaeological evidence suggests varying cultures of humans have inhabited the swamp for 13,000 years.

In 1650, Algonquian-speaking coastal tribes lived in the swamp.

In 1665, William Drummond, the first governor of North Carolina, was the first European recorded as discovering the swamp’s lake, which was subsequently named for him.

In 1728, William Byrd II, while leading a land survey to establish a boundary between the Virginia and North Carolina colonies, made many observations of the swamp, none of them favorable; he is credited with naming it the Dismal Swamp. Settlers did not appreciate the ecological importance of wetlands.

In 1763, George Washington visited the area, and he and others founded the Dismal Swamp Company in a venture to drain the swamp and clear it for settlement. The company later turned to the more profitable goal of timber harvesting.

Several African-American maroon societies lived in the Great Dismal Swamp during early American history. These Great Dismal Swamp maroons consisted of black refugee slaves who had escaped to seek safety and liberty.

The swamp’s role in the history of slavery in the United States is reflected in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The Underground Railroad Education Pavilion, an exhibit set up to educate visitors about the fugitive slaves who lived in the swamp, was opened February 24, 2012.

The Dismal Swamp Canal was authorized by Virginia in 1787 and by North Carolina in 1790. Construction began in 1793 and was completed in 1805. The canal, as well as a railroad constructed through part of the swamp in 1830, enabled the harvest of timber.

The canal deteriorated after the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was completed in 1858.

In 1929, the United States Government bought the Dismal Swamp Canal and began to improve it. The canal is now the oldest operating artificial waterway in the country. Like the Albemarle and Chesapeake canals, it is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.


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