Magazine Articles

The Great Dismal Swamp

February/March 2015

Restoring one of the country's largest swamps also means undoing a piece of George Washington's legacy.

In May 1763, a 31-year old Virginian aristocrat named George Washington traveled 200 miles south from his plantation on the Potomac River in pursuit of a deal that he hoped would earn him a tidy profit. His destination was a densely forested wetland with a forbidding name: the Great Dismal Swamp. 

The word dismal was a synonym for swamp in Colonial times. But while the name may have been redundant rather than descriptive, it must have seemed appropriate to the local English settlers, who had given this million-acre wetland a wide berth for more than a century. The future Revolutionary War general and U.S. president, however, was more open-minded about the swamp’s potential. 

As Washington explored the Dismal on horseback, he used his experience as a surveyor and mapmaker in recording the journey. He observed a dense forest of evergreens, rooted in black soil that appeared as fertile as the best farmland. Much of it was under water, but it wasn’t so deep that his horse couldn’t pick its way through. Near the swamp’s center, he camped on the shore of Lake Drummond, where bald cypresses rose out of still water on buttressed roots. The swamp on that spring day likely echoed with birdsong, and Washington later remarked that it seemed to be “a glorious paradise abounding in wild fowl and game.”

Still, Washington thought the place could be improved. That November, he and 11 of his fellow Virginia businessmen formed the Dismal Swamp Company. Their goal, in keeping with 18th-century ideas of progress, was to use slave labor to drain the swamp and clear the way for fields of hemp and maybe rice. 
Generations of subsequent ditching, logging and development reduced the swamp to about an eighth of its original size. What’s left still represents one of the largest contiguous forests on the Eastern Seaboard, a wildlife haven protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina’s state park system. But the landscape was altered to shed its water quickly, and refuge managers have seen the swamp become susceptible to drought and fire. The Fish and Wildlife Service, working with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, has embarked on an ambitious project to restore the swamp’s natural hydrology—one that will require undoing more than two centuries of engineering. 

The swamp on that spring day likely echoed with birdsong, and Washington later remarked that it seemed to be “a glorious paradise abounding in wild fowl and game.”


Deep in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a Ford Escape hybrid belonging to the Fish and Wildlife Service rumbles over an old gravel logging road between two seemingly solid walls of red maple and sweet gum trees. When the landscape opens up on either side, refuge manager Chris Lowie stops the car. He and Brian van Eerden, director of the Conservancy’s Southern Rivers Program, step out into the soupy summer air.
Three and a half years have passed since lightning sparked a fire here that burned for 111 days, sending smoke as far north as Annapolis, Maryland—and this part of the refuge still looks like a war zone. That summer, a long drought rendered much of the swamp dry. The fire smoldered in the peat soil and carved a shallow crater into the swamp’s floor, leaving a scar over more than 6,500 acres. Standing on the edge, Lowie and van Eerden can see two and a half miles to a line of trees in the hazy distance; the land in between is a mess of charred logs and blackened stumps rising forlornly from shallow water. This is now the reserve’s largest lake. 
“Until Hurricane Isabel in 2003, this was one of the biggest stands of Atlantic white cedar” in the reserve, Lowie says. That storm wiped out most of those slow-growing evergreens. A large fire in 2008 was followed by the blaze in 2011, which took 450 firefighters and $12.5 million to extinguish. “The big one,” Lowie calls it. “Even Hurricane Irene didn’t put it out.”
The Dismal gets its water mainly from precipitation, as much as 50 inches a year. Over the late autumn and winter, water is stored in the swamp’s spongy peat soil, which is made up of several millennia’s worth of partially decayed vegetation. Under natural conditions, water would seep out slowly and evaporate over the summer, but the network of ditches and canals begun by George Washington and his fellow speculators now funnel it out more quickly. 
“As it drains, the swamp’s carbon-rich peat soils decompose and waste away,” says van Eerden, explaining one of the risks of letting the peat dry out.
The 2011 fire was a stark reminder about the importance of water to the Great Dismal Swamp’s unique ecosystem, and getting water levels back in balance is the driving principle behind new efforts to restore the swampland. 
But it will require a delicate balance.
“It all comes down to soil moisture,” Lowie says. “What’s the ultimate moisture to have a healthy forest?” Too much, he says, could kill the hardwoods that have replaced the old-growth evergreens. Too little, however, leaves the swamp less resilient to natural and manmade disasters. 
For Washington, the Great Dismal Swamp would prove little more than an expensive headache. As it turned out, crops wouldn’t grow in the acidic peat, and it was only after investors shifted their focus to timber that the company turned a profit. That was in 1810, after Washington’s death, and the Great Dismal Swamp was already becoming a very different place.

The Dismal Swamp Canal, used mainly for transporting lumber, was completed in 1805, and it cut the swamp in half, further disrupting the flow of water. Logging increased throughout the 19th century, wiping out most of the slow-growing bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar.

Despite centuries of human tinkering, parts of the Great Dismal Swamp remained a haven for animals and a beloved retreat for local hunters and nature lovers. By the 1960s, the burgeoning conservation movement was beginning to recognize the Dismal as in need of protection, just as the swamp faced a new threat from the sprawling infrastructure development on its north side. In 1973, the Conservancy stepped in, brokering a deal to take ownership of nearly 50,000 acres of the Dismal from the Union Camp Corporation, a paper company that had owned much of the swamp since the early 20th century. The gift was valued at more than $12 million, a valuable tax break for the corporation. The Conservancy worked closely with officials to protect the land as a federal wildlife preserve, and the next year the property was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This saved the core of the Great Dismal Swamp and paved the way for further preservation.
Today the Dismal is home to more than 330 plant species and dozens of species of butterflies, amphibians and reptiles, along with a population of at least 300 black bears. But among nature lovers, it is perhaps best known for harboring some 200 species of birds. They include bald eagles, snow geese, herons, barred owls and 35 species of warbler. 
“The great thing about the swamp is it’s this huge chunk of forest that’s almost impenetrable,” says Bryan Watts, director of The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. That, he says, makes it a welcome stopover for Neotropical migrants flying up the densely developed East Coast.  


“It’s an iconic wildlife refuge, nationwide. But for 200 years, there was basically a full-on assault to try to turn the swamp into something else.”


The swamp was a smart acquisition, says van Eerden, but the work wasn’t over. “It’s an iconic wildlife refuge, nationwide,” he adds. “But for 200 years, there was basically a full-on assault to try to turn the swamp into something else.”

Van Eerden and Lowie climb back into the SUV, passing the burn scar and heading east. A ditch of coffee-colored water flows lethargically along one side of the road as the trees close in overhead, blocking the afternoon sun. Deeper in the forest sits a structure that refuge staff have jokingly nicknamed the Hoover Dam—and this could be the key to the future of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Completed in October 2013 at a cost of $950,000 (funded under the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act), it’s a steel weir that spans the South Martha Washington Ditch. Standing on a narrow overpass, Lowie demonstrates the system of pulleys that allow refuge staff to add or remove planks, adjusting the flow of foamy brown water over the spillway in response to rain or drought. Since the swamp is fairly flat, even a small dam can affect the water level in a ditch for more than two miles upstream, which in turn affects the water table extending at least half a mile on either side of the ditch. The effect of this larger weir is expected to reach four miles upstream. Over the next five years, wells and study plots will allow scientists to monitor the effects on the water table and on the forest’s ecology, with the aim of striking the right balance between wet and dry.

In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservancy calculated that they would need to build 40 water-control structures, most of them much smaller than the “Hoover Dam.” With the help of $3 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 2013 Hurricane Sandy disaster relief fund and 2012 Conservancy funds, they are halfway toward that target, with several more structures planned as funds become available.

Many of the structures have been installed already, and they are beginning to make a difference. However, it will still take years of trial and study to determine how much water should flow through the 150 miles of ditches that crisscross the refuge. The forest has adapted to the drier conditions, with broad-leaved hardwoods now standing where moisture-loving evergreens once dominated. The Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see Atlantic white cedar return, but they can’t kill off the maple and gum trees on which migratory birds and other animals now depend. “It’s adaptive management—what we’re trying to figure out is trade-offs,” Lowie says. “We have to find that balance.”

He believes it’s an achievable goal—but he’s also playing a long game. After all, it took people more than two centuries to realize the natural value of the Great Dismal Swamp.


Three decades after he first laid eyes on the swamp, George Washington—by then in his second term as president of the United States—decided to sell his stake to Henry Lee, the governor of Virginia. The Dismal had never lived up to the potential Washington saw in it, although in a letter to Lee he expounded almost wistfully about the swamp’s “fertility of Soil,” “lofty Woods” and easy access to shipping routes. “To describe all its advantages,” he wrote, “would require more time than my hurry, and the few minutes you allow me, will enable me to do.”
Today, it takes a different sort of dreamer to see the swamp’s many virtues. Much of the landscape that George Washington found so remarkable has been lost to history, but the remainder is still one of the last wild places on the East Coast, a habitat on which hundreds of species depend.
“I envision a healthier swamp,” Lowie says. “That means more habitat diversity. … It means getting some of the historical species, like Atlantic white cedar, back—although they’ll never be dominant again. I don’t have the resources to change the forest, but I do have the resources to make it wetter. And that will make it more resilient.”
With luck, and with a lot of hard work, the Great Dismal Swamp will continue to be a “glorious paradise.”