Early European settlers encountered a very different Great Dismal Swamp than the one we see today. In the late 1600s, the Dismal was a vast wetland, covering about 1.28 million acres. It stretched from the James River in Virginia to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. For centuries, Native Americans used the Swamp as hunting and fishing grounds but found it too wet to make homes there.
Some early explorers, such as William Byrd II, saw no value in swampland and thought it should be drained and converted to agricultural uses. The system of ditches criss-crossing Dismal was intended to carry water out, but this endeavor was only partially successful. Although the water table dropped significantly, the Swamp remained unsuitable as farmland, and so efforts then turned to harvesting timber. Cypress and cedar both could be used to make durable products with exceptional resistance to moisture. Cedar shingles were a very common product of the Swamp in the 1800s. By the 1880s, most hardwood trees had been logged out, but commercial logging continued into the 1960s. In 1972, the Nature Conservancy purchased land from timber companies and sold over 14,000 acres of that land to the State of North Carolina in 1974. For many years, the area was managed as the Dismal Swamp State Natural Area. Landlocked on three sides and bordered by the Canal on the fourth, access for the general public was limited. Following construction of the $1 million unique hydraulic swing bridge over the Canal and the Visitor Center, the Dismal Swamp State Park opened in 2008.
The Dismal Swamp Canal itself represents an important piece of American history. While the idea of a canal originated in the early 1700s, construction did not begin until 1793. Dug almost entirely by slaves, the Canal stretches 22 miles, from Deep Creek in Chesapeake, VA, to the town of South Mills, NC. The slaves forced to dig the channel by hand faced terrible working conditions: waist-deep muck and peat, extreme summer heat, biting insects, and venomous snakes. On average, they were able to complete about 10 feet of the Canal each day, while their masters collected their wages for the work. In 1805, 12 years later, the Canal opened to boat traffic, but it was so narrow and shallow that only flat-bottomed barges called lighter boats or gondolas were able to traverse it. These lighter boats, however, were used extensively to move timber products out of the Swamp and off to market. You can see a replica lighter boat exhibit along Canal Road, about 0.7 miles from the Visitor Center.
The Dismal Swamp Canal changed private hands several times and fell into disrepair during the Civil War, while the Union and the Confederacy each fought to control this vital means of transporting supplies. Finally, in 1929, the United States government purchased the Canal for $500,000 and the Army Corps of Engineers widened and dredged it to its current width of about 50 feet and depth of about 9-12 feet.
At different times in its past, the Dismal Swamp has been viewed as a "glorious paradise," a grim and foreboding place of strange smells and sounds, and a refuge. Lawbreakers found it an ideal place to hide illegal moonshine stills during the Prohibition years. Today, you can see a replica still along Canal Road about a half mile from the Visitor Center and the remains of real stills along the Supple-jack Trail.
In the time of slavery, many runaway slaves bravely seeking a path to freedom took shelter in the Swamp. Some stayed only briefly to rest before finding passage farther north, but some formed maroon colonies on mezic islands, areas of higher ground, and lived out the rest of their lives in the Swamp. Researchers believe the Dismal may have been home to the largest maroon colony. In December 2003, the National Park Service recognized the Great Dismal Swamp as a site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. It is the only such site to span two states (Virginia and North Carolina).
For more on the Swamp’s colorful and fascinating past, visit the gift shop to find some detailed historical nonfiction books, speak with park staff, or check out the exhibit hall and trailside panels on both Canal banks.