On Watch

10 Facts About the Not-So-Dismal Swamp

by Jani Parker - July 28, 2016

1. “Birds, bears & butterflies, oh my!” Over 200 species of birds, 80 species of butterfly and between 300 and 350 black bears call the Dismal Swamp home.


2. “Oh black water, keep on rollin’...” It may not be the Mississippi, but the tannic acids from the bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees make the water of the Dismal Swamp tea colored (which leaves a striking mustache on the bow of your boat). The water is considered to be unusually pure and was stored in kegs on sailing ships in the days before refrigeration.


3. “Not all those who wander are lost.” The Dismal Swamp has long been known as a place where travelers could lose their way, sometimes on purpose. Thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery in the years prior to the Civil War found sanctuary in the swamp, which is now recognized as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.


4. “The best things in life are free,” including the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center. Free dockage on the 150-foot face dock, clean (air conditioned) restrooms, vending machines, grills and an on-site gift shop welcome nearly 2,000 boaters yearly.


5. “Cross that bridge when you get to it” (footbridge, that is). The Dismal Swamp Canal State Park Visitor Center, located across the footbridge, has exhibits, an auditorium and a gift shop.  A short boardwalk through the swamp allows visitors to get a feel for the swamp without having to get of the beaten path. You can also rent mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks here.


6. “Walk your own path” or join othersalong the 8.5-mile paved canal trail that runs adjacent to the canal. The multi-use trail is open to bicycling, walking, running/hiking and horseback riding.


7. “You’re one step over the line” at the Halfway House (Lake Drummond Hotel), built in 1829, and originally located on the VA/NC state line in the Dismal Swamp Canal.  It is rumored to be a site where one could “step over” the NC/VA line and immediately be out of reach of local law. Sadly, there is no evidence of it today and you likely won’t even realize you have changed states when you cross the invisible line. 


8. “Life is a journey, not a destination” so take the time for a 3-mile side trip to Lake Drummond. A self-operated winch and rail can pull dinghies and small boats (1000 pounds or less) up to the lake for fishing or sightseeing.  Think of it as an amusement park ride without the lines.


9. “Ghosts only exists for those who wish to see them,” which includes many a hunter and fisherman who have sighted the ghostly white canoe with its fire-fly lamp described in the 1803 poem by Thomas Moore, “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.” In the poem, Moore describes a local legend about an Indian maid who died just before her wedding day and who is periodically seen paddling her ghostly white canoe across the waters of Lake Drummond.


10. “An ancient mystery set in stone” describes the huge historic canal markers that have recently begun to reappear along the east bank of the Dismal Swamp Canal. The 100+ year-old granite markers of up to 1000 pounds are made of chiseled granite with large numerals engraved into the face of each stone. They appear to measure from the Deep Creek Lock, rather than the ICW route distance, but no one is sure of the origins of the stones.So far, 12 markers and 2 broken stones have been located and returned to their watch on the banks of the waterway.