John Boyle O'Reilly
From Athletics and Manly Sport,
Boston: Pilot Publishing Company, 1890, 350-452.
1. Canoeing the Connecticut
2. Down the Susquehanna in a Canoe
3. Down the Delaware River in a Canoe
4. Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp
Back to the Bio
Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp
THE Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina is one of the celebrated features of the American continent. Its name is almost as familiar as Niagara or the Rocky Mountains. Its limits are not easily defined, no careful survey or good map of the region having ever been made. It lies in two States, on the Virginia side in the counties of Nansemond and Princess Anne, and on the North Carolina side in the counties of Gates, Pasquotank, Camden, and Currituck. Almost in the centre lies Lake Drummond, or "the Lake of the Dismal Swamp," which is seven miles by five in extent, according to local records, but three miles by two and a half by our measurement. The area of the swamp is between eight hundred and one thousand square miles. Its reputation is that of a morass of forbidden and appalling gloom, a region impenetrable to the search of student or hunter; the fecund bed of fever and malaria, infested with deadly serpents and wild beasts; the old-time refuge of fugitive slaves, who preferred life in its lonely recesses to the life-in-death of the slave-quarter and the man-market. It is supposed by the outer world, and even by those who reside on its borders, to be a hopeless wilderness, an incurable ulcer on the earth's surface, a place that would have been long ago forgotten but for its shadowy romance,--for its depths were once enlightened, though it is over fourscore years ago, by the undying song of a famous poet. Some of this evil character is true, but most of it is untrue, and much of the slander has not been accidental, but deliberate.
It is true that the hunted slave often heard the baying of the bloodhounds as he crouched in the cane-brake of the Dismal Swamp, or plunged into its central lake to break the trail, and true also that its hundreds of miles of waterlogged forest is infested with repulsive and deadly creatures, reptile and beast, bear, panther, wild-cat and snake; but it is not true that the Dismal Swamp is an irreclaimable wilderness, the pestilent source of miasma and malaria.
The Dismal Swamp is an agony of perverted nature. It is Andromeda, not waiting for the monster, but already in his grasp, broken and silent under the intolerable embrace.
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is the very eye of material anguish. Its circle of silvery beach is flooded and hidden, and still the pent-up water, vainly beseeching an outlet, is raised and driven in unnatural enmity to the roots of the tall juniper, cypress, and gum trees, that completely surround its shore. The waves that should murmur and break on a strand of incomparable brilliancy, are pushed beyond their proper limits, and compelled to soften and sap the productive earth; to wash bare and white the sinews of the friendly trees, and inundate a wide region of extraordinary fertility. The bleached roots of the doomed trees seem to shudder and shrink from the weltering death. There is an evident bending upward of the overtaken roots to escape suffocation. The shores of the lake are like a scene from the "Inferno." Matted, twisted, and broken, the roots, like living things in danger, arch themselves out of the dark flood, pitifully striving to hold aloft their noble stems and branches. The water of the lake, dark almost as blood, from the surface flow of juniper sap and other vegetable matter, is forced from six to ten feet above its natural level, and driven by winds hither to this bank to-day and thither to-morrow, washing every vestige of earth from the helpless life-givers, till its whole circumference is a woful net-work of gnarled trunks and intertwined fibres, bleached and dry as the bones of a skeleton, and sheltering no life, but that of the blue lizard and red-throated moccasin.
These bare roots and blasted stumps circle the water like a hideous crown, till the lake becomes a realization of the Medusa. Here, far from the voices of mankind, the Gorgon stares at heaven, but sees with introverted eye only the writhing horror of her own brow; hears only the hiss, and shrinks from the kiss of her serpent locks, gazing into no living eyes but those of her own damnable strands.
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is a victim waiting for deliverance. Release her, and she is no longer Medusa; the snake hair will give place to bands of gold and light; the region contaminated by her oppression will rejoice and blossom like a garden.
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is the well of the swamp's desolation. The swamp is not from itself, but from the well.
The region of the Dismal Swamp was intended by nature to be a pleasure ground, a health resort, and a game preserve for the eastern side of the continent. In spite of all that has been done and left undone to destroy it, the swamp itself is, probably, the healthiest spot in America. Its delicious juniper water prevents malaria more effectually and perfectly than the famed eucalyptus of Australia. The flying game of the continent centres in this region, and the lake in winter is the best shooting ground in the country. Now that wealthy clubs and individuals are buying up the coast shooting, this incomparable natural preserve ought to be secured for the nation or the State.
Its original undoing was probably some accident or cataclysm of nature, changing a water course or opening a crater-like spring or number of springs.
But the remedy from the first was as easy and as open to intelligence as the tapping of a vein to prevent plethora. The lake, it is probable, was the centre and the cause of the swamp, as is proved by the streams flowing out of, instead of into, it. Its overflowing waters, when swelled by rains or springs, finding no natural channel of escape, rose foot by foot to the very lip of the cup, covering the beach and reaching the densely wooded shore.
In this way has been brought about the singular condition of the lake, which, instead of being the lowest, is the highest portion of the Dismal Swamp. It could be pierced and drained at any point, and reduced to natural and beautiful proportions Its overflow, instead of constantly deluging the surrounding land, could be guided in ten thousand sparkling channels to enrich and adorn its wonderful environment.
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp is, by survey, about twenty-three feet higher than the sea, and it is not fifteen miles from tide-water, the intervening land being a level slope, and, except for the trees, exceedingly easy to channel.
And, stranger still, the channels have been dug for over one hundred years; but they are locked up at the outer ends with wooden gates. Ponder on this marvellous fact: the Lake of the Dismal Swamp, three miles by two and one half in extent, and from seven to fifteen feet in depth, is situated on the side, and almost on the top, of a hill, beside a tidal river, and yet it creates by overflow all around it for about one thousand square miles, one of the densest and darkest morasses on the surface of the earth.
In 1763, George Washington surveyed the Dismal Swamp, and discovered that the western side was much higher than the eastern, and that rivers ran out of the swamp, and not into it. He then wrote that the swamp was "neither a plain nor a hollow, but a hill-side."
A member of the National Geological Survey recently entered the Dismal Swamp, proceeding westward from the Dismal Swamp Canal toward the lake, and found that the rise in the land was five and one-half feet in seven miles. We met this gentleman, Mr. Atkinson, within the bounds of the swamp, and on hearing his statement asked him, "Could the lake be lowered and the swamp. drained with such an incline?"
"Certainly," he said. "It is a very decided water-shed. An opening from the lake to the tide, on the Elizabeth River on the one side and the Pasquotank on the other, would have a fall of twenty-two and six-tenths feet in a distance of less than fifteen miles."
Why, then, is not the lake tapped and its superfluous and injurious water drained?
If the Dismal Swamp lie on the side of a hill, as science proves, and the flow of the water demonstrates, why does not its superfluous water run off into the sea?
If the whole extent of the Dismal Swamp, land and lake together, is from twelve to twenty-five feet higher than the sea level, while actually adjoining the sea., why, in the name of reason, is it not drained and reclaimed?
These are the vital questions relating to the Dismal Swamp. I shall answer them one by one, and the answer in each case shall not be an opinion, but a demonstration.
In the month of May, 1888, two sunburned white men in cedar canoes turned at right angles from the broad water of the Dismal Swamp Canal, and entered the dark and narrow channel, called the Feeder, that pierces the very heart of the swamp, and supplies the great canal with water from Lake Drummond, or the "Lake of the Dismal Swamp." The men in the canoes were Mr. Edward A. Moseley and the writer of this article.
These were almost the first canoes, except the "white canoe" of the poet, that ever paddled on the breast of the dusky lake since the disappearance of the Indian hunters a century ago. The only boats known to the lake are the long, rude "dugouts," of the negroes, and the flat-bottomed dories or punts, of the farmers along the east side of the canal.
While we were in the main canal we found the banks high, especially on the western side, where the diggings and dredgings of the channel have been heaped for a century. On this side, behind the bank, lay the unbroken leagues of swamp, crowded with dense timber and canebrake jungle, the surface of the land or mire being considerably lower than the surface of the canal. On the east side ran the road, and beyond this, long stretches of level country, formerly part of the Dismal Swamp, but now more or less cleared, with here and there a farm of astonishing superiority, and at long intervals a straggling village, usually connected with a saw-mill for juniper and cypress. Originally the canal ran right through the swamp, which it now borders on the eastern side.
[plot map along borders of Dismal Swamp Canal, east of Lake]
The land east of the canal has been cleared, because it has been drained into the sea. The fall is to the east. But all the land west of the canal is still unrelieved and "dismal" swamp.
How is this? Does not the land on the west side drain into the canal, as the land eastward has drained into the sea? No! the canal has completely stopped drainage; it is higher than all the western swamp.
Then came the startling suggestion, striking us both at the same time. This canal is a cruel ligature on the vitals of the swamp, shutting it in on itself and suffocating it. The canal is higher than the swamp, and instead of draining it, drowns it. The canal is a straggler, and here before our eyes was a deliberate process of land murder!
But I have outstripped the canoes. Let me begin at the beginning, and tell this story of a delightful summer outing, and stop this "damnable iteration" of the sufferings and wrongs of the Dismal Swamp. The swamp cannot grieve at whatever infamy may be put upon it. What does it care, or who does care whether the wonderful lake be ringed with silver sand or hedged with bleached roots and twisting serpents? "But the pity of it, Iago! Oh, Iago, the pity of it!"
Go back again to Norfolk with me, and try to forget that you have been inside the gates of this brown-water canal of the Dismal Swamp. It was not fair to begin my tale in the middle. Surely I have made a mistake and told the story of the swamp too soon. But I have only told the story; it remains for me yet to prove it.
It is seven o'clock in the morning, and we two are in the market of Norfolk buying bacon, salt pork, hard bread, cheese, a ham, an alcohol stove, and all the necessaries for a few weeks' sojourn in the wilderness.
At eight o'clock, breakfast over, we are getting into rough suits in the office of Gen. Groner, of the Merchants' and Miners' Transportation Company, whose courtesy we shall remember with pleasure.
At ten o'clock we are on board a tug, kindly placed at our disposal by Mr. R.B. Cook, the virile manager of the N.Y.,P.&N. Railroad, to take us to the first lock on the Dismal Swamp Canal, which runs into the Elizabeth river about seven miles from Norfolk. Just think of it! the entrance to the Dismal Swamp only seven miles from the busiest city in the South, a city that is destined to become one of the greatest commercial ports on the continent!
Let me stop here to moralize over this laggard among the great commercial cities, this voluntary Cinderella, who was born with the diadem on her brow, but allowed it to grow tarnished, and at last to be taken from her head by a less favored rival. Norfolk has vast advantages over any other seaport on the Atlantic coast. They are apparent to every observing stranger; but they have never been properly estimated or developed by her own. Norfolk could have led the van of all the Eastern cities in the race for commercial prosperity; but she let the breeze go past without unreefing her sails; and she saw the slower hulls of Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, pass her under clouds of canvas and sail clean out of sight. What What is the matter with Norfolk? What ails Virginia, that she is not the proud mother of a greater New York? The possibilities of Norfolk have always been in full view. Thomas Jefferson, who was a student of the favored localities and resources of the country, and especially of his own State, declared that Norfolk was destined to be "the great emporium of the Chesapeake." Madison agreed with Jefferson, holding it to be "the true interest of Virginia to foster the prosperity of Norfolk, as among the prime objects of her policy." But Virginia acted like a stepmother, stolidly spending twenty million dollars to improve Richmond, to one hundred and ninety thousand dollars to develop Norfolk.
In later days, Maury said: "Norfolk is in a position to have commanded the business of the Atlantic seaboard. It is midway on the coast; it has a back country of great fertility and resources; and as to the approaches from the ocean, there is no harbor, from St. John to the Rio Grande, which has the same facility of ingress and egress at all times and in all weathers. * * * Virginia saw those advantages, and slept on them."
But she is waking; or at least Norfolk is waking to her own interests; and with men of extraordinary intelligence and energy, like Gen. Groner and Mr. Cook, above mentioned, who are each building up enormous commercial enterprises, it is probable that even in our own time, we shall see the radiance of this aroused Southern Cinderella, as she reaches northward for her borrowed coronet.
But we have kept the tug waiting more than an hour, and the captain, a manly, weather-tanned fellow, apologizes for having to keep an engagement to tow a railroad float across the harbor, before he starts with us for the lock.
What matter for a few hours' delay here or there? We have cut our social and orderly bonds, and we gladly sit and smoke on the tug, while she pulls and pushes and screams and at last backs the tremendous float into open water, and buckles to her heavy tow with the grunting earnestness of honest toil. We also improve the waiting by arranging our baggage, oiling gun and rifle, fixing hooks and lines, and otherwise giving a last touch to the arrangements.
At one o'clock the tug started with us for the lock. There was a queer nervousness about us as we neared the place, caused by our complete ignorance of what the swamp was like.
"You see that schooner yonder?" said the captain of the tug, looking across the fields round which the crooked river winds. "She is lying at the lock of the canal, loading with lumber from the swamp."
Presently one of the hands on the tug pointed to the water; the river had grown dark like the stream from a dye-works. "See," he said, "that is the juniper water of the Dismal Swamp."
It was singular that neither the captain nor his men could tell anything about the swamp. Their knowledge ended at the lock. This is characteristic of the whole neighboring population. Richmond knows as little about the swamp as Boston; even Norfolk and Suffolk know little more.
"All I know," said the captain, "is that there are lots of snakes in there."
"And bears," says another.
"And panthers," says a third, and so on, and so on, while each one gave a friendly hand to launch the canoes as we closed to a wharf near the lock, where about thirty colored men were loading a schooner with lumber and bundled shingles of juniper and cypress.
"If I were going in there, I'd keep my Smith-and-Wesson handy," said the second hand on the tug, as we touched the shore. Before we could ask the meaning of the unpleasant hint (which we found to be a libel on the swamp), the sturdy little steamer had backed out, and was whistling "Good-by."
The crowd of colored workmen stopped and stared at our heap of baggage, and at the handsome, varnished little boats, but soon were recalled to their work, and we were left to go on packing the canoes.
The lock-keeper, a gaunt, badly-dressed white man, sauntered down from his lock to take a look at the strange boats. He was very obviously chewing tobacco, and he spoke slowly and nasally.
Before the loading was half done, our first and almost our last misfortune occurred. Mr. Moseley's canoe, with timbers warped from a winter's storage, was leaking like a sieve. Out must come the packages again--pork, blankets, camera, ammunition, etc.
"What shall we do now?"
"Hire a mule to tow us, and keep bailing the canoe till the wood swells and stops the leak."
"Mr. Lockman," we asked, "can you let us have a mule?"
"Yes," very slowly, and looking at the boats, not at us. "I have a mule; but them boats won't tow."
"But we know better. They will tow. Can we have the mule?"
"Them boats won't tow," still more slowly.
"Can we have the mule?" impatiently.
"Not to tow them boats. They won't tow, I tell ye."
Argument and entreaty were in vain. It was none of his business we held, and we knew better than he, anyway; but the man was stubborn, though not at all sullen.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and we had intended reaching, that evening, the house of Capt. Wallace, who had a large farm in the swamp, about twelve or fifteen miles up the canal, and to whom a friend of Moseley's had written about our trip.
At last we compromised with the lockman, who let us have the mule and a cart, with a one-legged colored driver, to carry our baggage to the village of Deep Creek, a few miles up the canal. Then we entered the first lock of the Dismal Swamp Canal, directly from the tide-water of the Elizabeth River, and were raised probably eight feet to the lowest level of the canal. This means that if this lower lock were opened, the whole Dismal Swamp could be drained to the depth of eight feet.
We parted from the unreasonable lockman with no kindly feelings; but we learned before night that his intentions had not only been kind, but exceptionally honest, and his knowledge quite correct of the towing qualities of an eighty-pound canoe.
A word about the history of the canal. A company for the cutting of the Dismal Swamp Canal was chartered by the States of Virginia and North Carolina, in 1787, and both States subscribed generously to the stock. The United States Congress also became a large stockholder. The names of George Washington and Patrick Henry were among the first subscribers for the stock; though this canal for commerce must not be confounded with an earlier system of canals or ditches, devised by Washington himself for the purpose of reclaiming the swamp by lightering the timber to the frontier. These canals still exist; but the charter of the commercial canal gave it absolute rights over the waters of the lake and all other canals in the swamp. It was not opened till 1822, in which year the first vessel passed through to Norfolk from the Albemarle Sound. It was completed in 1828.
The cost of cutting the canal and its tributaries was about twelve hundred thousand dollars, and it is estimated that the expense of the earlier canals, also largely from public money, was several hundred thousand dollars more.
The Dismal Swamp Canal runs nearly north and South, joining the Elizabeth River to the Pasquotank, above Elizabeth City, N. C., the distance between those points being about forty miles. The canal is forty feet wide, chartered to be eight feet deep, fresh water, the color of dark brandy or strong breakfast tea (the color caused by the juniper sap and other vegetable qualities), but clear and palatable, and singularly wholesome. The banks, where we could see the cutting under the foliage, were composed of fine yellow sand mixed with broken shells. A profusion of wild-rose bushes, myrtle, sweet bay, flowering laurel, white blackberry blossoms, and honeysuckle leaned over the water and made a most lovely border.
The afternoon was pleasant, with a cool wind in our favor, and, though Mr. Moseley had bailing enough to do, we reached Roper's enormous saw-mill and factory, at Deep Creek, in about an hour. The yards of the factory swarmed with colored workmen, and the works covered a large area. There were immense piles of railroad ties, cypress shingles, laths, and juniper saw-logs on the side of the canal, which here widened out like a harbor. The violent rising scream of the saws sounded everywhere, something like "p-sh-sh-sh-sh -- hai-ai-AI-AI!" the last note an ear-splitting squeal, like a pig in direful pain.
Mr. John L. Roper, the owner of this saw-mill, leases the timber land of almost the entire swamp to supply his mill. He keeps in the swamp probably one hundred men or more, in different gangs, cutting juniper and cypress, which they drag by mules over the "gum roads" to the lake, whence it is lightered through the Feeder to the Dismal Swamp Canal, and by this means carried to the saw-mill at Deep Creek. The colored workers in the juniper groves of the swamp are its only inhabitants; they are called "swampers." Let me here explain that Lake Drummond is the centre of the swamp's organism, acting precisely like a heart. Except the Dismal Swamp Canal, which runs along the border, all the roads, canals, and ditches that pierce the swamp, radiate from the lake like spokes from a hub.
The swamp has only one natural feature--the lake. All the rest is simply swamp. The canals and roads are accidents.
Whoever would know the Dismal Swamp must study it from the lake, not from the exterior. This is the reason that even those living in its neighborhood know so little about it. Their knowledge is local, not constitutional.
A "gum road" is a road formed by trunks of trees about eight feet long, laid close together, and bearing two rude wooden rails. On these run low mule wagons or trucks, loaded with logs cut in the interior. The mule goes securely on the "gum road," and the negro driver usually walks ahead on one of the broad rails.
There was no one at Roper's saw-mill who could give us any information, so we paddled on to the village of Deep Creek, before reaching which we passed through another lock. Here the Dismal Swamp proper may be said to begin. At this lock we were again raised several feet, so that we were now, although only a few miles from tidal-water, probably sixteen feet above the sea level.
"Shall we pay toll here?" we asked the lockman.
"Not till you come out," he answered, making it clear that there was only one entrance and exit on this side of the Dismal Swamp.
"Does the swamp begin here?"
"Yes," said the lockman, leaning at an angle of forty. degrees, and slowly pushing the great beam with his back. "It begins here, and it runs all the way to Florida."
This was true, in a way. The whole southern coast is margined by swamp lands; but the Dismal Swamp is not of them. It is high land instead of low land; its water is fresh, instead of salt or brackish. Among swamps it is an abnormality. It leans over the sea, and yet contains its own moisture, like a bowl. Indeed, the Dismal Swamp is a great bowl, forty miles long, and ten to twenty miles wide, and, strange to say, with its highest water in the centre. The sides of the bowl are miles of fallen and undecaying trees, fixed in a mortar of melted leaves and mould. Deep in the soft bosom of the swamp are countless millions of feet of precious timber that has lain there, the immense trunks crossing each other like tumbled matches, "since the beginning of the world," as a juniper cutter said.
At the village of Deep Creek, the lockman, evidently the leading person of the place, was a handsome and intelligent man, referred to by every one as "Mr. Geary." A crowd of mingled white and black awaited our arrival on the canal bridge; and when we landed,. I was somewhat surprised to see "Mr. Geary" and Mr. Moseley shake hands most warmly, and proceed arm in arm like old friends. A lank white man offered me an explanation. "Mr. Geary," he said, "is a high Mason. Them two are above me and you. I'm an Odd Fellow, I am; but them fellows are higher'n me or you."
Mr. Geary was a kindly man, "high Mason" or not. We found later on that he was widely known as a famous hunter, who probably knew the Dismal Swamp as well as any man living. He had shot over it all his life. He told us that the fishing at the lake was "wonderful."
Moseley's canoe still leaking, we hired a team from "Mr." Johnson of Deep Creek, to carry the baggage to Capt. Wallace's house, and we started to paddle up the canal.
It was a lovely evening, and the surroundings were so novel and so unexpectedly attractive, that we can never forget the impression. Far before us as the eye could reach, ran the canal, narrowing in perspective, till it closed to a fine point. On the right, rose from the water, a dense forest of cypress and juniper, flowering poplar, black gum, yellow pine, maple, and swamp oak, with a marvellous underwood of laurel in ravishing flower, the very air heavy with the rich perfume, which resembles that of a tuberose, honeysuckle heaped in delicious blossom, yellow jessamine, bay, myrtle, purple trumpet flowers of the poison oak-vine, with the ever-present roses, and white-flowering blackberry hanging into the water.
As the evening darkened, with a clear sky overhead, and a red glow from the west, reaching over the trees, the effect was almost oppressively beautiful. No other tree darkens in evening silhouette so impressively as the two queen trees of the Dismal Swamp, the juniper and cypress. With the low sun behind them, the clear-cut delicacy of their foliage reminds one of the exquisite fineness of dried sea mosses on a tinted page. But when the sun has gone down, and time sky is still flushed with its glory, the cypress takes on a mystery of dark and refined beauty that is all its own. It rises still blacker than the dark underwood, the tallest among the trees, lonely, like a plume. It is not heavy or hearse-like, but thin, fibrous, the twilight showing through its delicate branches, and tracing every exquisite needle of its leafage on the air. It seems to be blacker than the coming night; blacker far in its fine filaments than the clustered laurel at its feet. The darkness and delicacy of the cypress are its genius. It does not oppress, it thrills. In the twilight it is the very plume of death, but of a death uncommon. A yew or a willow is a sign of mourning; but a cypress in the evening is a symbol of woe.
But with the decline of the lovely day came such a jubilant chorus of sweet voices! Never have we heard, except in the air of dreamland, such a concert of delicious bird music. In number and variety the singers were multiplied beyond conception. Far as we could see along the canal we knew that the air was vibrant with this harmony.
The thought of such unbroken melody following the eye into the remote distance was a more delightful music in itself than that which was ravishing the senses. Here the mocking-bird ceased to mock, and poured out its own ecstatic soul. The catbird, discordant no longer, shot its clear joy through time great harmony, and the wren and swamp canary twined their notes like threads of gossamer through the warp and woof of this marvellous tapestry of sound.
I shall have to speak by and by of the noxious and horrible denizens of the swamp. Let me dwell lovingly and gratefully on the pleasure derived from those that were innocent and delightful.
We let the evening fall on us unresistingly, to drink in the sweet thing that was around us. We were miles from our destination, but we could not settle to mere travelling till this incredible vesper song was done. We sat silent, absorbed, witnessing "the deathbed of a day, how beautiful."
The charm was broken by the happy hailing of two colored boys on the towpath, who were driving "Mister" Johnson's team with our baggage, and who had now overtaken us. Then came the thorn of our rose. Moseley's canoe was still leaking, and while he had been floating off with the divine mocking-bird, the water had gained on him like a temptation. In an instant the concert had vanished. The curtain of the commonplace fell over that finer tympanum that almost hears spiritual voices, and the canoe man was bailing his boat with a tin dipper, while he grumbled at fate.
The dusky drivers waited on the towpath, and we soon started again, keeping up a lively conversation from boat to wagon. But the leak grew, the night was closing, and we were in a very strange land.
"Let us tie a rope to the cart and tow the boats," we cried, and the picture of riding indolently up the canal was like a charm.
We fastened the canoes bow and stern and tied the longest painter, thirty or more feet in length, to the tailboard of the cart, and away we went. But before we had proceeded twenty feet the light rope, slackened by the rapidity of the light and low boats, caught on a stump by the water side. The leading canoe felt the pull, and darted headlong to the bank, and had not the boys at once stopped the horse the canoes would have been pulled to pieces, or dragged clean up on the towpath.
We tried again and again, with the same result, and then we felt ashamed of our superior knowledge of a few hours before, and interiorly begged the nasal lock-keeper's pardon.
"H'ist de kunnues right out, boss," said one of the boys, a little fellow, exceedingly black, with strongly marked features; "and put 'em on de wagon."
No sooner said than done. Moseley's boat had about one hundred pounds of water in her when we turned her over on the bank. The little black fellow (the other was a head taller and yellow) had a perfect genius for management. He directed the fastening and arrangement of the canoes; he was almost too small to assist. He spoke such a hasty and softened dialect that we could hardly understand him, but he was one of the brainiest and readiest boys I have ever met, white or black. The conversation of the boys, as we jogged along, was very interesting. The yellow fellow was an indefinite character; he knew nothing certainly; the black fellow answered "yes" or "no," like the working of a trap.
"What bird is that singing now?"
"I t'ink dat a swamp canary, boss," says the yellow youngster, with a doubtful' glance at his companion, who remains silent, till we ask him, "Is it a canary?"
"No, dat's a wren," and you feel sure that a wren it is. "Whose farm is this on the left?" we ask, looking over a most fertile and admirable farm several miles in extent.
"I t'ink dat farm 'longs to ole man Douglass?" says the yellow fellow, with a sound, as usual, like a note of interrogation at the end of his assertion.
"Does it belong to Mr. Douglass?" we ask the black boy.
"No, dat farm Muss Lindsey's," answered the firm little oracle. And the yellow boy never resented or questioned the black boy's knowledge, while the black boy never derided or corrected the yellow boy's ignorance. Lindsey's superb farm, stretching four miles along the canal and reaching eastward nearly five miles, is as level as a floor and wonderfully fertile. It was originally dismal swamp, most of it having been reclaimed within the last thirty years by its present owner, who is a first-rate farmer, judging from his estate. The canal at first ran right through the swamp, but now all the land to the east has been cleared. (See map, page 350.)
One of the striking features of this superb Lindsey farm was a row of enormous barns about three-quarters of a mile apart, and placed along its centre. Not another building was to be seen.
Were this the time and place for such consideration, we might dwell on the landlord system evidenced by this large estate, with its many barns, but no dwelling-houses. This is the mistaken economical system of the South, and particularly of Virginia. The war has not destroyed the plantation system. The great southern farmers of to-day stand in about the same relation to their workmen and tenants as the owners formerly did to their slaves, but with less responsibility. The homes of the tenant farmers of Virginia and North Carolina, as we saw them, are a discredit to America. Sooner or later Virginia will have to face the necessity of establishing real and permanent small farm proprietorship.
It is hardly fair to criticise the land ownership of such a farm as this, saved from the Dismal Swamp by the energy and intelligence of its proprietor. If any ownership be absolutely righteous it must surely be that of the farmer who not only cultivates, but has reclaimed his farm from the wilderness.
Nothing could so convincingly demonstrate the inestimable advantage of reclaiming the Dismal Swamp as this and other wonderful farms along the canal, that a few years ago were wilderness, infested with reptiles and wild beasts.
Before the light had quite gone from the tow-path, a rabbit, and then another and another, came out of the brushwood and played about quite near to the horses' heads. With the masculine instinct of destructiveness, a gun was loaded with evil intent, but wise little bunny had an instinct too, for he went out of the way of the slaughter.
But while the muzzle was regretting its lost roar, a fat partridge hopped out of the bush about fifty yards ahead.
"Look! look!" cries the yellow youth, stopping the horse. "Dere's a cock shot, boss!"
The gun was raised and the little brown hen covered, when a quiet protest was heard from the black boy.
"'Tain't right to shoot a bird in de mating season!"
But the remonstrance was late, the hammer fell, the explosion followed--and the partridge, by good luck, escaped across the canal. The enjoyment of the black boy was as evident as the disappointment of the yellow one. If anything were needed to make the sportsman ashamed of himself, it was the timid little "cluck-clucking" of the covey in the grass, alarmed for the welfare of the absent one. The tameness of the birds at this season made the offence all the meaner; and the double reproach of the black boy's eye and the frightened little family in the field had its full effect.
Soon after, through the gathering gloom, we saw the outline of a large house to the left of the canal, with outbuildings and white fences, and other large buildings on the right side of the canal. This was Wallaceton, where, at Captain Wallace's house, we received a most hospitable welcome. In a few minutes the canoes were cared for, many willing hands helping, and we were enjoying an excellent supper. After supper it was hard to realize, from our refined surroundings, and the gracious hospitality we were enjoying, that we were within the bounds of, and not very far from the very heart of the Dismal Swamp. Three gentlemen connected with the National Geological Survey, Mr. Atkinson, Mr. Towson, and Mr. Kennedy, were stopping at Captain Wallace's, and they told us much about the swamp region, which they were then surveying, and of which an accurate map is soon to be published.
That night we could only see the interior of this charming home; next morning we witnesed with astonishment the extraordinary wealth, fertility, beauty, and wonderful cultivation of Captain Wallace's magnificent farm. Every acre of this land, both east and west of the canal, has been saved within forty years from the Dismal Swamp. Forty years ago the elder Mr. Wallace, a man of high intelligence and indomitable spirit, whose immense farm joins his son's, with his own hands cut down the first tree in the swamp, which marked the beginning of this estate. He and his son, Capt. John G. Wallace, have now, in the first order of cultivation, many thousand acres of land not inferior to the best on the continent.
We were awakened in the morning by a chorus of bird song rivalling that of the evening before. On looking from our window we saw a field like a dream--1100 level acres without a fence--in which it appeared that not one inch was left neglected or unproductive. The splendid area of fertility was marked in squares of varying color like a map; here the rich dark brown of ploughed loam; there the green ridges of early potatoes and corn; yonder a long stretch of clover, and so on until every foot of the fine field was filled with natural wealth.
This field, called the Dover Farm, lies on the west side of the canal; that is, it reaches into the very depths of the swamp for nearly a mile and a half. Its position is between the lake and the canal.
How, then, if Lake Drummond and the canal be higher than the swamp, could this 1100 acres of land be drained? The answer has in it the demonstration of the iniquity and stupidity of the canal system. Captain Wallace ran a deep drain around this Dover Farm, bringing the end of it to the canal; there he stopped, and waited until the canal was emptied some years ago, for the purpose of being cleansed from stumps and sand. The indefatigable farmer took advantage of the dry water-course and dug his culvert under the bed of the canal, bridging it securely. His drain was then several miles long, and he continued it until it emptied into the Northwest river, which runs out of the swamp. Last year the lake being swelled by heavy rains, the canal company did not, of course, open their locks and let the water escape; instead, they adopted a lazier, easier, and more ruinous plan; they raised the banks of the canal, one consequence of which was that the confined water percolated through the surrounding land, forced itself under Mr. Wallace's drain, and inundated and destroyed several hundred acres of his cleared land. Of course, from such an injury he had no protection.
The energy and intelligence of these two gentlemen, father and son, working with such surroundings, are remarkable. The elder Mr. Wallace, a man considerably over 70, spoke with almost enthusiastic earnestness of the work he had himself done, and the greater work of general reclamation which is possible in the Dismal Swamp.
"A railroad," he said, "instead of the canal, would open up and enrich this whole country. If the locks at both ends of the canal were opened, almost the entire land of the Dismal Swamp could be reclaimed. Or," he added, looking at the canal, which must have cost him many a bitter thought, "if this water were only lowered four or five feet the land all around here could be saved."
After an early breakfast we started up the canal, intending to reach the Feeder early in the fore-noon, and, if possible, arrive at the lake about noon. Still the leaky canoe bothered us; but while we were considering how to make her carry her load, a handsome young farmer, Mr. R. E. B. Stewart, courteously offered us his boat and man to take our baggage to the Feeder lock, near the lake. In a few minutes the boat started ahead of us.
The canal above Wallaceton resembled the stretch from Deep Creek to that place, the only change being that the trees in the swamp become thicker and taller. The majority of the trees here appeared to be black gum, with an outer border of poplar, maple, and swamp-oak.
The Feeder is a deep cutting, about 18 feet in width, running at right angles from the canal to the lake. It is four miles in length, with a lock about a quarter of a mile from the lake.
The current in the Feeder runs strongly from the lake to the canal. The banks of the Feeder are thickly covered with canebrake, the bamboos of great height. On the right, going toward the lake however, the swamp is more open and has large timber.
The condition of the Feeder was a shocking revelation. There was no raised bank here, as in the main canal. For miles of its length the water flowed freely over the banks into the swamp, creating a morass of dreadful appearance. No living thing could there find footing. Even birds were rarely seen, although we saw a few of beautiful plumage, one of which is known to the negroes of the swamp as the red bird. It resembled a flame in the brilliance of its coloring, as it passed through the shaded light of the swamp.
In the Feeder we met several lighters, heavily piled with juniper logs, on their way from the lake to the sawmill. These lighters had each two men, colored, who poled them from the banks. At times, when the sides of the Feeder will permit, they walk on a line of logs laid along the mud bank, pushing the lighter with their poles resting against the breast.
Our passage up the Feeder was against a strong current. It was a steady and monotonous paddle through dim light, the canebrake and the boughs reaching over our heads. The air had a dense warmth as though we. were in a closed room. Outside on the canal, there was a strong breeze with a decided chill in it; here, we were stifled as if in an oven. And yet, up to this time we had not seen a mosquito in the swamp; and as for snakes and other wild creatures, we had almost made up our minds that they were a tradition or a popular romance.
"How far to the lake?" we asked a magnificent fellow who was poling a timber skiff down the Feeder. He was a giant in black bronze, large-eyed, large-browed. large-motioned--a man born to be distinct among his fellows. He stopped his lighter by holding her against the canes, and he looked with an ample smile at the canoes. We had to repeat our question, when he started as if ashamed.
"Beg yo' palidon," he said, with a grace that became him; "I didn't hear yo', dem boats is so putty. It's 'bout a mile to de lake, What yo' call dem boats?"
"Kunnues! nebbah heahd 'bout dem befoah."
We remarked that he looked in good condition, and asked him was the swamp a wholesome place.
"Yes," he said. He had worked on the lake for seven years. He had come there from South Carolina, sick with chills, to be cured in the swamp.
"Do people come here to be cured?"
"Oh, yes, sah! Dismal Swamp's de healthiest place in all de worl'. Dere's nothing like junipa watah to cu' de chills."
"Do you like the swamp?"
"Yes, sah! I like de swamp. I wouldn't wuk nowheres else. I could get moh wages by going out to wuk on de high land. I get twenty dollars a month heah; could get thirty dollars out on de bank, but I like to wuk in de old Dismal best of any."
This was free testimony, and we heard it repeated scores of times by "swampers" before we left the lake. Interesting in this respect and others was Ned Boat, a very old colored man, who has lived in the swamp altogether for seventy-four years. He has never been sick. He is now employed by Mr. Roper as a counter of logs and marker of time, and earns forty dollars a month. He says the swamp water will cure almost every disease. Another man, the blackest man we had ever seen, his skin being quite as black as ebony, had come from South Carolina five years ago, with chills and fever, had been cured by the juniper water, and had lived in the swamp ever since. White folk as well as black added their testimony as to the extraordinary salubrity of the swamp. The phrase "Going out to the high land" is the usual expression of the "swamper" for going to the exterior world. He speaks as if the swamp were in a hollow, instead of being higher than "the high land." He says, "I came in," and again, "I went out to the bank;" a phrase that is impressively significant of his footing in the swamp.
We said good-by to our colored Hercules, whose mighty arms were bare to the shoulder and his ragged shirt open to the waist. He had on a thick white cotton cap, without a visor, that looked like a wadded turban. It became him mightily. In front he had sewed a strip of red cloth, not across, but upright, and behind he had fastened the long bushy tail of a squirrel, that hung down his back. "I killed dat fellow last night," he laughingly said, seeing our eyes fixed on the ornament.
No great tragedian on the stage ever dressed himself so becomingly as this black Ingomar.
There was no chance harmony here, it was nature's own decoration. He saw himself in no mirror, except the mirror of the canal. He knew how to dress better than any belle in Boston or New York. The wave of his large hand as he said "good-by" was as kindly and as eloquent as if he stood in a lion-skin cloak on the banks of the Niger, a chief among his own.
We could not help thinking as we left him that this man at least was properly placed in the Dismal Swamp, where he was as free as were his fathers in Africa. Like scales from our eyes began to fall the impressions of "Dred," and all the other dismal stories we had read and heard about the Dismal Swamp. Every day of our stay on the lake this conviction grew upon us; the slaves who escaped to the Dismal Swamp in the old time must have lived happily in their absolute freedom. The negro in the swamp is at home. He has helped to spread and exaggerate the terrors of the place to keep it more securely for himself. If I were a slave, in slave time, and could get to the Dismal Swamp, I should ask no pity from any one.
But all this time we kept laboriously paddling against the strong current, for the lock ahead, only a quarter of a mile from the lake, was this day letting pass an unusual volume of water. Every stroke of the paddle now sent us deeper and deeper into the heart of the swamp. Suddenly, Moseley, who was ahead, stopped paddling and peered through the matted underbrush.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A cow and a calf! What can they be doing here in the middle of the swamp?"
There they were, sure enough; a red and white pair. They heard our voices, stopped chewing, stared a moment, then turned and picked their way into the jungle.
A few minutes later the lock came in sight, and we saw two men waving their hats. One was the man in Mr. Stewart's boat with our traps, and the other was "Abeham" (not Abraham), who was to be our guide, philosopher, and friend on the lake. Abeham had been sent from Suffolk to meet us by Mr. Rudolph A. King of Washington, a gentleman deeply interested in the Dismal Swamp, of whom I shall have more to say by and by.
"What are that cow and calf doing in the swamp?" was our first question.
"Wild cattle, sah," said Abeham.
"Are there wild cattle in the swamp?"
"Yes, hund'eds and hund'eds of wild cattle; I saw lots of 'em dis mawnin'. Yo' ought to have shot dat calf; we'll want him to-morrow."
This lock at the very lip of the lake keeps the water back to another height of several feet, so that lock after lock, from first to last, had backed up the lake to the height of almost twenty-three feet above tide water.
Never can we forget the view that met our eyes as we were raised to that last level, and looked along the canal to the lake.
The lockhouse and the whole Feeder were completely overhung with tall trees. So close was their interlacing over the canal that the view to the lake was like looking through the barrel of a gun. The air along the dark and narrow sheet was actually green from the light sifting through the foliage. We were in the shadow; it was all shadow to the end, but the end of the view glittered like an immense diamond.
A ball of glorious and unshaded brilliancy lay at the end of the Feeder. A "talisman's glory" it was, set on the low water and framed in the dense cypress.
"What is that?" we asked after a long look of bewildered pleasure.
"Dat's de openin' to de lake," said Abeham.
We sat there for an hour. We ate our dinner and smoked a cigar; and the wonder lessened as the strange glory grew. The radiance of the diamond became subdued till it had taken the form of a perfect arch, with its perfect reflection in the water.
We were looking along a dark, straight stream, shaded over like the low arch of a bridge, until the gun barrel simile was the most likely, and, at the end or muzzle, the vision was carried across three miles of open and smooth water flashing to the sun.
Mr. Moseley photographed the scene. It was the first time, in all probability, that this picture, incomparable of its kind, had ever been taken by a camera, though Tom Moore surely must have sketched it when he stood at this same feeder lock eighty-five years ago.
At the request of the good-natured colored boy from Wallaceton we photographed the lockhouse, including him. He asked, could he have the picture, and Mr. Moseley promised to send him one.
"Send it," he said, with the importance of a serious child, as he named his many initials, "to D. J. L. Griffin, care of Abeham."
Then we started down the gun barrel toward the lovely bridge, the perfection of which remained unbroken to the last. Here was no effort of landscape art, but the living hand of nature completing its own picture and putting all art as gently out of question as the mountain does the mole.
A weirdly beautiful view opened on us as our canoes shot under the outer leaves of the Feeder's bridge, and we floated at last within the marvellous ring of the lake of the Dismal Swamp.
Vividly came to our minds the picture in Moore's touching ballad.
Here, we thought, is the very scene, water, wood, and sky, that the poet saw generations ago. These trees growing out of the dark flood; this weeping moss hanging from the sad queenliness of the elegant cypress; these "deadly vines" with their purple trumpet flowers that poison the very water immto which they pour their tears; these "beds of reed" and "tangled juniper"; these white roots round the border of the lake, where glide and coil "the copper snake" and the fearful red-bellied moccasin.
And here let the lapse of timne be forgotten and the association be renewed. There is no age in art. The song of a true poet is as unrelated as the song of a bird or a brook. This is my excuse, if it be needed, for repeating here Moore's ballad of "The Lake of the Dismal Swamp," written at Norfolk, in Virginia, in 1808.
"They tell of a young man who lost his mind on the death of the girl he loved, and who, suddenly disappearing from his friends, was never afterward heard of. As he had frequently said in his ravings that the girl was not dead, but gone to the Dismal Swamp, it was supposed he had wandered into that dreadful wilderness and had died of hunger, or had been lost in some of its dreadful morasses."--Tradition.
"They made her a grave too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true,
And she's gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where all night long, by her fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.
Her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and loving our life shall be,
And I'll hide the maid in a cypress tree
When the footstep of death is near."
Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds,
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before.
And when on the earth he sank to sleep,
If slumber his eyelids knew,
He lay where the deadly vine doth weep
Its venomous tear and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!
And near him the she-wolf stirred the brake,
And the copper-snake breathed in his ear,
Till he stirring cried, from his dream awake,
"Oh, when shall I see the dusky lake,
And the white canoe of my dear?"
He saw the lake, and a meteor bright
Quick over its surface played--
"Welcome!" he said, "my dear one's light!"
And the dim shore echoed for many a night
The name of the death-cold maid.
Till he hollowed a boat of the birchen bark,
Which carried him off from shore;
Far, far he followed the meteor spark,
The wind was high, and the clouds were dark,
And the boat returned no more.
But oft, from the Indian hunter's camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp,
To cross the lake by a fire-fly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe.
How wonderful was the truth of the poet's vision! A century is as a day, leaving the picture unchanged. True in romance and reality, Moore's poem on the "Lake of the Dismal Swamp" is as faithful in its natural history as in its melody.
It may be interesting here to recall the incidents of the poet's visit to the lake in 1803. To one man in Norfolk is due special thanks for the constant attention which of late years has been given to this memorable visit. Mr. M. Glennan, editor of the Norfolk Virginian, has often agitated the reclaiming of the Dismal Swamp, making use of Moore's ballad to keep the popular interest from flagging. Mr. Glennan writes me the following interesting account of Moore's two visits to Norfolk:--
"In 1803, Tom Moore received the appointment as registrar of the admiralty court at Bermuda; and in September, 1803, he sailed from Portsmouth, Eng., in a ship of war that was taking out Mr. Merry, minister to the United States. The ship arrived in Norfolk Nov. 7 following, and while Mr. Merry went to Washington, Moore remained in this city, the guest of Col. Hamilton, then the British consul, who resided at that time in the building now the residence of Mr. Copps, on Main Street, opposite Fenchurch. During his stay here Moore made many friends and delighted the young ladies of the borough by his skill upon the harpsichord. While in Norfolk he wrote the famous ballad 'The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.' In December he started for his destination in Bermuda, on the man-of-war Driver. He was disappointed in his anticipations as to the Bermudas, and after he had been there about three weeks he wrote to his parents that 'he was coming home.' He accordingly appointed a deputy, and in the spring he took advantage of the sailing of the frigate Boston, to come to New York, where he shortly arrived. He remained in New York but a short time, when he again made up his mind to visit Norfolk, arriving here with Capt. Douglass. During his second stay in Norfolk, it is believed that Moore was the guest of Mr. William Plume, who resided where the Hospital of St. Vincent de Paul now stands. Mr. Plume was a native of Ireland, whose real name was Moran. He had taken a very active part in the rebellion of 1798 in Ireland against the English rule, and with Commodore Barry, 'the father of the American navy,' and other kindred spirits, had to flee the land. He settled in Williamsburg, Va., but afterward removed to Norfolk, married a Miss Elizabeth Hazzard of Princess Anne county, Va. For some reason, presumed to be the fear of persecution by the English government, he never revealed that he was the Irish rebel Moran until the time of his death. He was greatly respected and the soul of society, whose house was always open. His descendants of today are the Morans, Barrys, and Kings of the city of Norfolk."
When Moore visited the Lake of the Dismal Swamp, no doubt with the purpose of putting into ballad form the legend he had discovered in Norfolk, he naturally went alone in the "dugout" of a negro boatman, so that he might not be disturbed. He passed up the canal, came through the Feeder and entered the lake, just as we did, beneath the living arch of cypress. "He wrote all the time he was in my boat," says the man who brought him to the lake. This negro boatman, called "Uncle Tony," was a well-known character. From his own lips the story of the poet's visit has been written down by Mr. Robert Arnold of Suffolk, Va. Here is Uncle Tony's story:--
"I shall never forgit dat time. One mornin' I war gittin' my skiff reddy to go to de lake, a mighty nice-lookin' man cum up to me an' sed: 'Ar you de man dat will carry me to de Lake ob de Dismal Swamp for which I will pay you 1 pound sterling?' De gentman talked so putty dat I tole him to git in my skiff an' I wood carry him to de lake. I notice dat he kep writin' all de way. When I got to de horse camps (a large encampment of negro wood-cutters), I stopped to git somefin' to eat. He cum outen de skiff an' ax me what I stop for. I tole him I stop to eat some meat an' bread. He ax me if I would have a drink. I tuk off my hat an tole him dat I would be much obleeged to him for it. He fotched a silber jug, wid a silber cup for a stopper, an' sed: 'My man, dis is Irish whiskey, brung it all it all de way from home.' He tole me dat his name was Thomas Moore, and dat he cum fom 'way ober yonder, an' was gwine to de lake to write 'bout a spirit dat is seed dar paddlin' a kunnue. De har 'gin tu rise on my hed, an' I ax him ef dat wus a fac'. He sed dat he wus tole so in Norfolk. I shal nebber forgit dat gentman. I fotch him back, an' he gin me de poun' which war five dollars, an' he lef' for Norfolk, bein' mitey glad dat I had carried him to de lake. He tole me dat he had trabbled an' seen sites, but dat he nebber wus so 'stonish befo'; he did not 'spec' to see at de end ob de kunel sich a putty place, an' dat I wood hear some time what he was gwine tu say 'bout it."
Our camp lay on the northwest corner of the lake, three miles from the Feeder's mouth. At the start we struck out to the middle of the lake before turning north, so that we took in at first glance the whole wonderful, view. For myself, I longed to lay down my paddle and sit there motionless until the sun sank and the moon rose, for a dream and fascination that had drawn me from childhood was now fulfilled and completed. Only the lake of my fancy was much smaller and gloomier than the true lake. There is no other sheet of water like this anywhere. No other so far removed from the turbulence of life, so defamed, while so beautiful. It fills one with pity and wonder--the utter silence and loneliness of it. It is a dead sea, but neither bitter nor barren.
I could not help the feeling, that increased as time passed, that this pure eye of water, ringed by one distinct line of dark trees, no farther horizon visible, was not on a plain, but on a high mountain. Later on, as we sailed around the borders of the lake, another delusive thought persisted in coming. It always seemed that the wooded shore rose abruptly thirty yards or so back from the water, and that I verily could see the uplifting of the trees and underbrush. Probably because it was unnatural that the shore should be just as low or lower than the water surface, the senses refused to accept it as true.
The first deep impression made on me by the lake was its size. I had expected to see a sheet not a tenth part as large, and gloomy with the shadows of its tall, overhanging trees. Instead, from the centre the trees were a low, dark border on the far horizon.
From the centre, the lake is the very ideal of loneliness and stillness, strangely emphasized by the solitary wide-winged hawk, tipping on his high circle. No smaller bird can be seen at this distance in the trees on the shore--though birds are there, and in rich variety.
Here, for instance, are some of the birds we noted in a few days, many of them in great numbers: the catbird, robin, swamp canary, wren, sparrow, mocking-bird, whip-poor-will, red bird (a blaze of plumage), thrush (with a crown), yellow-hammer, woodpecker, owl (immense fellows), hawk, eagle, kingfisher, jay, heron, quail, wild turkey, woodcock, buzzard, crow, and numerous brilliant little birds of many species, whose names we did not know. In the winter the lake is fairly covered with geese, swans, and all kinds of duck. The bat, which I believe is not a bird, is at home here.
But crossing the lake that first day we saw only one bird, a hawk of great size. The water of the lake was deliciously cool in the centre, where the average depth is about fifteen feet. Again and again we drank the sweet draught. Looking into it, no mirror could be more perfect in reflection. The flash of the paddles was brown, not crystal. On a day when the water broke (and we crossed the lake one day before the rush of a gale), the brown brandy-light through the lifting waves and the warm ruddiness of the breakers were singularly beautiful.
The lake is full of fish of many and excellent kinds, though it has never been fished in the deeper water. The "swampers," who live on the borders, never fish beyond the line of stumps, which are at farthest a hundred yards from the shore, so that the fish of the lake are not at all completely known. The garfish, because he jumps, has been seen sometimes eight feet long, but no other fish is seen in the deep water. You cannot see one inch into the lake; it is like looking into a bowl of ink. This makes it dangerous for light boating, for the snags are numerous, and though they may not be a nail's breadth under water, they are quite invisible.
The fish in the lake, great quantities of which we caught, and on which, indeed, we chiefly lived, are the speckled perch or "Frenchman," a delicious fish, the raccoon perch, chub (a black bass), yellow perch (small), flyer, garfish, catfish (very numerous), gaper, blackfish (thirty inches long), roach and eel. There are plenty of pike in the canals.
The following story has been told me about the strange disappearance of a fish from the lake: "There was a very numerous fish known there as the brown perch, which was esteemed as the finest of all fresh-water fish. One year, about 1866 or 1867, they disappeared and never have been caught since. It was the year of the great swamp fire, which lasted through a continuous drought of more than two months. It is supposed that the strong alkali imparted to the water from the timber and other vegetable ashes destroyed this fish, for soon after the rainy season had set in, immense quantities were found floating dead on the edges and surface of the lake." In the town of Suffolk, on the northwest border of the Dismal Swamp, Mr. Rudolph A. King of Washington has a large property, which has led him to consider the advantages of the swamp region as a game preserve. He has started a project of getting five thousand men to form a game club, paying about ten dollars each a year, and lease the whole Dismal Swamp. He writes to me as follows:--
"It is within the reach of men of moderate means, by combination in sufficient number, at trifling expenditure, so small as scarcely to be felt, to secure ownership, maintain and extend to a magnitude never attempted on this continent, with large enough area and attractions for thousands, 'The Pioneer Shooting Park, Game Preserve, and Health Resort of America,' exclusively for business men, to provide shooting, fishing, and outdoor recreative attractions similar to the English and European style, for those seeking health or pleasure in pursuit of game or fish, canoeing, yachting, or kindred diversions, such as are becoming more necessary every year. By these means we could attain more practical results in protection of forest game, fish, and other natural luxuries of this country, for the benefit of those concerned, than legislation has been able to reach."
One has only to listen to Mr. King to be converted to his project, which is certainly one of the straws in the wind that have a significance for the future of this region.
The lake itself was discovered in 1775, by a Scotchman named Drummond, after whom it was named. He had followed a deer so far into the swamp, which was then regarded as impassable, that he lost his way. He wandered through the dreadful aimless avenues of the morass for three days and nights, afraid to lie down and sleep on account of the serpents and panthers. He had almost abandoned hope on the third day, and, the story goes, was meditating self-destruction to escape the horrors of a lingering death in the swamp, when he parted the canebrake before him and found himself on the verge of the wonderful lake. He had discovered the jewel hidden in the heart of the swamp! The poor fellow thought at first he was crazy; that this was the wild vision of delirium, till he had waded into the dark water and drank of it. Then, hope and strength returned. He took his bearings by the sun and succeeded in reaching his home that night, with the almost inconceivable tidings of a great lake in the centre of the Dismal Swamp.
George Washington, in 1763, in his twenty-first year, made a complete survey of the Dismal Swamp, with profound results. Throughout his life the secrets of nature he had there discovered were never forgotten; and years afterward, when the Revolutionary War was over, and he was "the father of his country," he purchased the swamp, and organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company, which still exists and continues its ownership.
Washington's original design was not the mere cutting of timber, but the entire reclamation of the swamp. He had perceived the immediate possibility of bringing almost its entire area into cultivation. His great project failed in this its first purpose; not because it was impracticable, but because the company found that the timber-cutting alone yielded an unexpected and almost incredible revenue. The reclamation of the land was gradually given up, and as it was found that by holding and raising the water the timber could be more easily taken out, the locks began their work of still further drowning the whole district. Then came the commercial canal, with power over all the water in the swamp, and devoid of intelligence and public spirit, and the land of the Dismal Swamp was doomed.
Washington himself surveyed the swamp for the route of his canals. His first cutting, running from the northwest corner of the lake in a westerly direction, ended at what is called the Reed Farm, on the Edenton road, seven miles from Suffolk. It is still called "Washington's Ditch." It has for many years been abandoned as a means of travel, a more direct route--the Jericho Canal--having been made at a later date. The Jericho Canal leaves the lake at the same lock as "Washington's Ditch," and ends within two miles of Suffolk, running into the Nansemond river.
I paddled up both these canals from the lake, and more oppressive surroundings it is hard to conceive. The Jericho Canal is ten miles long and eighteen feet wide, but the encroaching bamboo jungle reduces this width by over two feet on each side. The dense canes rise at least fifteen feet high on both banks, so that it is like canoeing in an unroofed sewer. To enliven the passage, the moccasins, on sunny days, climb to the tops of the bamboo canes, and are seen constantly dropping into the water. It is a common thing to have them drop into the open dugout of the "swamper," out of which they wriggle without delay. But the thought of a five-foot venomous snake dropping into a fourteen-foot canoe, with decks forward and aft, under which he would he sure to dart, and out of which there was no escape except by returning to the centre of the boat, was a dismal imagining. To make sure of no such visitor, I kept firing now and then into the canes ahead.
The water in the Jericho Canal runs into the lake; but at one-third its length the stream turns and runs the other way, emptying into the Nansemond river.
This line where the watershed divides is unquestionably the highest portion of the swamp. It has not been surveyed; but calculating the rise from the Feeder to the northwest corner of the lake to be two feet, and three feet for the old lock at the opening of the Jericho Canal, I predict that the extreme height of the swamp will be from twenty-eight to thirty feet above tide water.
The condition of the wholly abandoned "Washington's Ditch" is even more forbidding than that of the Jericho Canal. The heavy trees are crowding its banks and leaning into it; the bamboos meet across it for long distances. It is, I think, the most sombre and evil-looking waterway on the earth, and yet no foot of it but is beautiful. The water moves slowly toward the lake (any movement is a relief in the gloom and silence, for even the birds have deserted the place), but after a short distance, as in the Jericho Canal, the flow changes and goes outward.
Washington had undoubtedly discovered the deepest secret of the Dismal Swamp, and appreciated its importance. He had read, most probably, the only description of the swamp in existence in his time, in a manuscript journal kept by Col. William Byrd of Westover (on the borders of the swamp), a man of great intelligence, who had surveyed the Dismal Swamp in 1725, at the request of the Governor of Virginia. Col. Byrd's manuscript is to be seen in the National Library at Washington. After his survey, he reported to the Governor of Virginia that the Dismal Swamp could be drained and reclaimed, and a petition was sent to George III.; asking that a company be formed for that purpose, the company agreeing in advance to bear all the expenses, to pay themselves by the ownership of the reclaimed land, which was to remain untaxed for fifty years; and they bound themselves also to complete the work in ten years.
One hundred and sixty-seven years have passed since then. King George's answer has not yet been received in Virginia, and the Dismal Swamp remains undrained and abandoned. Surely this is one of the most remarkable facts of modern times.
Colonel Byrd, in his journal, describes the dreadful dangers of his exploring expedition into the Dismal Swamp. "We hoped to gain immortal reputation," he says, "by being the first of mankind that ventured through the Dismal Swamp." He started on his exploring expedition in March. He could not have selected a more unfavorable month, for the swamp was then drowned with the winter rain almost as completely as it is in the same month in our own times. The lake is five feet lower in September than in March. No wonder that after a week's attempt he had only succeeded in entering to a distance of three miles. His party could find no solid ground to rest on at night, and their fires went out on the soggy earth.
Colonel Byrd says he succeeded at length in reaching the North Carolina side of the swamp, and of course he is to be believed. But he must have skirted the eastern border all the way, for he missed the lake, which was not discovered until another quarter of a century had passed. Colonel Byrd based his favorable report to the governor, no doubt, on the fact, apparent then as now, that the swamp lay between three tidal rivers, the Elizabeth, the Nansemond, and Pasquotank, and was high above them.
It needed no wizard to see that such a swamp could be drained.
Washington, in 1763, in his own words, entered the Dismal Swamp, and "encompassed the whole." He camped on the east side of the lake, and unquestionably considered the problem of its formation, for he was astonished, and he astonished others by declaring that all the rivers in the swamp flowed out of it instead of into it.
"The Dismal Swamp," wrote Washington, "is neither a hollow nor a plain, but a hillside." He had discovered, what measurement has since shown, that the lake was 23 feet higher than the sea!
Scientists have accounted for the water in the Dismal Swamp, from cursory observations, by the rainfall, even denying the existence of springs in the lake. I venture, with much hesitation, to disagree with this conclusion, believing it to be impossible that the rainfall can account for the enormous supply of water, not only contained within the swamp, but which is, and always has been, flowing out of it.
First, it is granted that no more rain falls on the Dismal Swamp than on any other piece of Virginia 40x30 miles square. Second, it is certain that it does not draw from the surrounding country, for it is higher than all its environment.
Yet, out of the Dismal Swamp run no less than nine rivers, some of them very considerable, and still the lake continues to overflow, and the whole vast extent of the swamp remains inundated.
These are the rivers that, if traced to their source, will be found to take their rise in the Dismal Swamp: the south branch of the Elizabeth, the west branch of the Elizabeth, south branch of the Nansemond, the Deep Creek, the North River, the Northwest River, the Little River, the Perquimans, and the Pasquotank.
Granting that the dense foliage of the Dismal Swamp lessens evaporation, there is still nothing like a proportion between the rainfall and the water that remains in and flows out of this district.
There is no field in America more deserving of scientific investigation than the Dismal Swamp. "The first thing" is not known about it--how it was formed. Fortunately the attention of the National Geological Survey has now been turned in this direction. A survey of the entire district has been ordered and begun. Within a year, it is hoped, a perfect map of the Dismal Swamp, showing its surface, with the accuracy of five-feet contours, will be published.
"The bed of the lake was formed by a fire that burned the trees and the peaty earth, making a hollow where the water lodged," says "general opinion."
But then it must have been a swamp before the fire, or there would have been no peaty earth to burn, and the rivers must have been flowing out of it as they do to-day. The fire could not make the rivers, even if it did make the lake; and if it were originally a swamp, the fire could not burn deep enough to form the present bed of the lake, which is from 7 to 15 feet in depth. The fires still yearly occurring never burn below two feet, for at that depth is the percolating water, and it must have been there always.
The bottom of the lake is composed almost wholly of fine white sand, and the temperature varies greatly in parts. In our long rubber boots we waded in the shallow water near the shore in several places, and found this fine sand bottom. Prof. N. B. Webster, in an interesting article on certain physical features of the swamp, says,--
"The vast swamp appears to be retained above the level of the adjacent land in a way similar to the peat mosses of Solway and Sligo, until they burst and overwhelmed the neighboring country. What known force but that combination of molecular force known as capillarity can supply and sustain the waters of the lake and swamp above described?"
It is hard to answer as to the supply, hut it is obvious that the force that sustains the lake at its present height is not molecular, unless a lock be a molecule. "The outlets at the canal locks," said old Mr. Wallace, "are inadequate to let out the overflow, and it has to flood the land." He was speaking of the pane-like openings in the locks to lower the water.
But suppose the locks were opened altogether, and left open, what would be the result?
The middle level of the Dismal Swamp Canal is, or is supposed to be, eight feet deep. If the middle locks were opened, the lake would be lowered eight feet, and the whole swamp west of the lake would drain into it, while that portion to the east would drain into the canal. If there be a doubt of the consequence, look at some of the wonderful farm lands lying east of the canal from Deep Creek to South Mills. Miles and miles of fertility almost incomparable on the surface of the earth. Half a century ago every foot of this land was Dismal Swamp, forsaken morass, full of reptiles and wild animals.
"There is some peaty land in the swamp," said Mr. Wallace, "and I don't know that it could be reduced to cultivation; but there are hundreds of miles of land as good as this I have reclaimed."
"Would the land burn if it were drained, as some people say?" I asked Captain Wallace, whose reclaimed land runs within a few miles of the lake.
"No," he answered, smiling at the question; "Why doesn't our Dover Farm (which lies west of the canal) burn if that be true? The whole surface of the swamp becomes dry enough to burn in the summer months; but it does not burn; at least it burns no more than any other closely timbered country."
Another objection offered is that the drainage of the swamp would produce malaria.
Shame on the pretence! The people who are responsible for the swamp have not been able to make it malarial in a hundred years of treatment inductive to malaria. They have drowned it, and rotted it, and cut away its purifying juniper wood, and still it remains the healthiest portion of the State of Virginia, if not of the United States.
If I were sick to-morrow of malaria contracted on some New England river, I should go at once to the Dismal Swamp to be cured. Depend on it, the tree that can kill malaria in such a morass can drive it out of the human blood.
What reason is there to believe that malaria would follow if a remedial and sanative, rather than a destructive and mephitic course were adopted?
But who are "they" who thus have the doing or undoing of the swamp in their hands?
"They" are the people who devised the policy of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Land Company or Timber Company, and all who support their past and present management. "They," too, are the farmers of the swamp district who do not agitate for the removal of the obstructions to their prosperity offered by those persons or corporations. "They," too, are the whole people of Virginia and North Carolina who tolerate in their States an evil that the early eighteenth century resolved to remove, and that is a double discredit to the nineteenth century.
The Dismal Swamp Canal was chartered in 1787 as a public highway, to be forever free from taxes on condition that it served certain important purposes, one of which was that "as the said canals, the main canal and feeder, may be of great utility in affording the means of draining the sunken lands through which they pass. . . it shall be lawful for the proprietors of the said adjacent lands to open cross-ditches into the said canals." I copy from the charter.
This condition has been outrageously abused by the corporation. Instead of keeping the canal as a means of draining the adjacent lands, the banks have been raised to store the water till the canal is much higher than the lands adjoining. If a farmer on the west side wants to drain his land, he must adopt the heroic course of Captain Wallace and tunnel under the canal.
On this vital condition, which accounts largely for the immense sums of public money voted for the canal in Congress and the State Legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina, the Canal Company has long ago forfeited its charter. Instead of using the public money for the good of the farmers owning the swamp lands, it has used it to destroy those lands, with the view, probably, of eventually buying them at its own price.
But they have overshot the mark, and have ruined their own property more hopelessly than they have injured the land. They have allowed another canal to be run almost parallel to theirs (the Chesapeake & Albemarle), which has diverted all their trade, and which bears large vessels and steamers. The new canal has a much longer course, with other disadvantages; but it has beaten its old and pampered rival out of the field. Only one little steamer plies on the Dismal Swamp Canal, and even this must disappear as soon as a necessary railroad is run through the eastern swamp region.
But let us return to our canoes and recall some of the pictures of the lake and swamp.
"Abeham," said Moseley, on our first afternoon at the lake, "put some bait in my boat; I am going to fish till supper time."
And he goes one way from the camp in his canoe with his rod and his gun, while I go another out on the lake. The camp is a rude frame house, with a few bed places or "bunks" in it, built on the edge of the lake by Captain Busby of Suffolk, probably to induce sportsmen and fishermen to visit the place. Instead of pitching our tent in a snake country, this safe and dry shelter is most gratefully accepted. Contrary to our expectations, the nights were quite cold, and I had reason to be thankful that I had brought with me a large raw silk blanket (one of those made by George S. Brown of Boston, whose excellent goods ought to be known to all who are fond of athletics and outing).
Our camping ground had associations, too, that are worth mentioning. Over thirty years ago (in 1855), an attempt was made by some enterprising men of Suffolk to open the beauties of the lake to the outer world. It was a worthy project, but it began at the wrong end; the beginning ought to have opened the eyes of the outer world to the beauties of the lake. Colonel Hollidway and others of Suffolk built a large hotel here in the swamp, near where our camp stood. "There were accommodations for one hundred and fifty persons," we read in a Suffolk man's letter, "and a band of music was kept continuously playing." Is this a true story? we ask ourselves, standing on the very site, where not a vestige of hotel remains. To whom did the band play continuously? If people wanted to hear a band why did they come here for it? What business had a band here, anyway? How did the guests reach the lake? Through the Jericho Canal in a lighter, under the snake-fruited bamboo? What a most singular vein of questions we open, thinking of this vanished hotel with its incomprehensible band, "playing continuously!"
"Where did this hotel stand?" we ask Abeham.
"Out dere in de lake, at dat black stump. Dat part of hotel. Dat's all dere's lef'. Lake cover'd it all up."
The stump was two hundred yards out in the lake. This bears out the words of Mr. R. A. King that "the lake has widened on the west side, by washing of the waves, over two hundred yards since 1857."
We left Abeham to cook a supper of fish which he had caught while waiting for us in the Feeder. Your southern darky is a natural fisherman. Like a thrifty housewife who takes out her knitting between-whiles, he will bait a hook and fish while he is "doin' nuffin'." And what a picture of contentment he is while fishing! Look at Abeham, here, just waiting while we have gone up a "gum road,"--for we tried faithfully to explore all the avenues, wet and dry, leading into the swamp, on our way round the lake.
The southern negro is the freest man in civilization, as he ought to be, for Heaven knows he has had enough of bondage. He is striking the balance now. He works just when he chooses, and he loafs when he chooses. He is not only politically, but socially, free. He has no ambitions, no pretensions, and hardly any responsibilities. He is the sugary element in the grinding sand of our civilization. Lazy? Why shouldn't he be lazy if it seems best to him? Suppose he begins to dig and scrape and grow thrifty and hard and mean as progress and Society make us? Suppose he learns to sell with light weights, and lend at usury, to live above his income, not because he wants to, but because Mrs. Cuffee in the next shanty gave a party, and Mrs. Abeham across the way has set up a mule carriage, and his wife and family must do as much as they? Will he be a happier or a better man by this way of living than he is now with his old hat and his cheery smile and his pleasant manners and his little niggers singing and laughing with their mother in the humble but sufficient cabin?
Not he; he is choosing the wiser and happier way. Let him go fishing while he may. He has a right to a holiday for at least two whole generations. If the white folks grumble at their work left undone, let them go and do it themselves. They made him do it long enough. Now, let him work just when he likes, or not at all, if he likes.
Keep on, Abeham, just as you are. Have a rest. Your clothes are good enough, and you can hunt for food any time. Civilization will catch you and tame you and dress you and educate you, and make you a provident, careworn, dependent, miserable, compromising, respectable element of society soon enough.
But was that a signal Moseley made to me? Yes, a nervous, quick wave of the hand that says, "Come here! Come here at once!"
I join him in a dozen strokes of the paddle. He is excited.
"Quiet, now," he says, being most unquiet; "do you see that tall gum tree on the very edge of the water a quarter of a mile away?"
"An eagle, a bald-headed eagle, do you hear? has just lighted in the top of that tree. We must have him. We will get as near as we can and start him up. If I miss him, you make sure of him."
We proceeded quietly toward the tree. Abeham, watching us, and scenting sport, had joined us. When within a hundred yards of the tree we saw the great bird standing on a high bough, a tall, gaunt, black body, with white head and tail. The intervening branches made it a risky shot, but when we had got fairly within range Moseley fired, and down came the bird head-first, as if plunging into the lake.
There was a fallen tree growing beneath, and he was caught in its branches about ten feet from the water. He hung heavily, his great curved yellow beak on his breast, his eyes closed, and his enormous talons extended helplessly. He seemed to be quite dead.
"Get him down, Abeham," said Moseley.
Abeham pushed his boat under the branches and stood up, reaching his hand toward the bird. Next moment he shrank back in open-mouthed terror, with his eyes fixed on the eagle, and actually fell into the seat at the end of his punt.
What a change had come over the wounded creature! The dying king had arisen in his harness. He had rallied for a last stroke as his enemies closed upon him. The head that was drooping a moment ago was raised with infinite pride and defiance, and the neck stiffened with wrath. The eyes glared with piercing anger at the foe that dared to touch him; the massive yellow legs were drawn up to strike, and the talons opened and shut with ferocious passion.
This was the dread vision that had terrified Abeham, and no wonder. The bird at that moment could have torn him limb from limb.
But it was only a flash, only the agonized effort of despair and death. Next moment a gray film spread over the fierce eye, the yellow beak dropped on the breast, and the legs reached downward pitifully and found no footing. Then, once more making us start in our boats, he rallied with raised head, gave a wild look around, and with a desperate struggle raised himself from the branches, and dashed toward the low bank twenty feet away. He alighted on the ground, and stood there with his head lowered and pushed into a dark angle of the bank, with his back to his enemies. There could hardly be a doubt that it was a deliberate preparation for death, not an effort to escape. He had seen his enemies close beside him, and he knew he was in full sight. A proud savage, badly wounded, in the power of merciless foes, would have done precisely what this eagle did.
Next moment another gun flamed, and he fell backward, dead. He was a noble specimen of the bald-headed eagle--the national bird. This is the strong-winged one that, Audubon says, "can ascend until it disappears from view without any apparent motion of the wings or tail, and from the greatest height descends with a rapidity which cannot be followed by the eye."
"The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls."
Who said that the bald eagle was a coward? Audubon, I am sorry to see, believes the aspersion. Benjamin Franklin regretted that the bird was taken as the national emblem, because it was said to be mean, ungenerous, pusillanimous; that he would not fight a dunghill cock in the same cage. No, perhaps he cannot fight in a cage; such a bird as this was not built to fight in a cage. But whoever thinks the bald eagle a coward had better see one die. At the last moment of life, at least, no nation need ever seek for mightier dignity or courage than his. Woe be to that power that ever meets the look of a nation preparing for the death-grip as we beheld that of this majestic bird.
He was awfully solemn and stern, even as he lay dead in the canoe. I never saw a head, human or animal, with such tremendous lines. The long, curved bone of the skull over the deep-set eye gave an expression of profound suffering and power. In one view he seemed to be very old and gray, and reminded one of the loneliness and kingliness of Lear; but the general suggestion, not of the beak, but of the side brow and sunken eye, was of the head of Daniel Webster.
We hung him on a stump till morning, till we could send him by canal to Suffolk to have his skin preserved. He was, as all great birds and beasts are said to be, covered with foul parasites, that must have made his life a torment, and that probably deepened the patient and enduring lines of his head. These vile things hurried from the dead king they had feasted on while his blood was warm; and in the morning, when we took his body away, we saw them clinging hopefully to the sun-warmed stump. "Long live the king!" one fancies their sycophantic word, as they kissed the senseless edges of the heated bark. For three whole days some of them hung to the place, through dew and rain, till a drenching night washed them into perdition.
So it is always when a great man dies. He must have his parasites in life, and it is a cold world for the vermin when he is gone.
What more about the swamp? Snakes? I wish I could close without saying a word defamatory of the poor, maltreated swamp. But one thing is true: it is no more to be blamed for its vermin than the eagle. In fair hands the swamp would purify itself and be as wholesome in its life as in its air and water.
"Pity 'tis, 'tis true." We have told of the birds and flowers and other lovely features of this strange region. Now we must go down into the recesses of its sins and let them see the day.
Booted to the thigh, armed with knife and gun, is the only safe way to enter the canebrake, or, indeed, to depart in any way from the open spaces of the swamp. During our exploring we did not see bear or panther or wildcat; but whoever leaves the beaten ways of the swamp must be prepared to meet these inhabitants.
For three days, with a cool wind and nightly rain, with the exception of one large king-snake which we killed on a "gum road," we had seen nothing more noxious than a blue lizard with a red head, a harmless and friendly little fellow who seems to have no fear of man, for he will go on eating his invisible food and glancing up in your face in a most amusing and taking way. But the shape of the creature is against it, and the color of his head, which is exactly the hue of the moccasin's belly. When Moseley woke up from a doze one wet afternoon, and found one of these lizards (the negroes call them scorpions) on his pillow, still eating invisible food and smacking his lips with a friendly glance, it was well the reptile didn't understand American, or he might have been offended.
Our first snake was killed in this way: On our second day, while passing up a "gum road," we came upon a large dark-skinned snake lazily coiled on a sunny log. Having killed him by striking him with a heavy cane, we were afterward told by Abeham that it was a harmless king-snake, and that, moreover, it spent its time destroying the poisonous snakes in the swamp, which it does by crushing them.
On the morning of the fourth day--and what a day that was, with a copper cover on it, and a crater underneath--sweltering, we woke up, and both had the same thought--a swim. "Jim," a very interesting colored "boy" from a neighboring "swampers'" camp, was outside, and he stared aghast at our preparations.
"No, no, don't do dat!" he said earnestly.
"Moccasins!" with a grave head-shake.
We did not jump in; we contented ourselves with a bath in the boat. But we laughed at "Jim," and sat down to breakfast in the open air. In a few minutes we stopped laughing.
"What is that swimming out there?" asked Moseley, pointing to a slight dark streak about twenty yards out in the lake.
"A moccasin!" cried Abeham, getting on his feet excitedly. Abeham was used to snakes, but terribly afraid of them. "Shoot him!"
We shot him; slight and short as he looked swimming, he was four feet seven inches in length. In a minute another--his mate probably--swam past and was killed, and was exactly the same length.
The moccasin swims with its head and about fourteen inches of its back over the water. The head is very small for the thickness and length of the snake. It swims rapidly with a wavy motion. It is dark on the back, with a violently red belly, like inflamed scales, from the loose skin of the under jaw to the tail. Most of those we saw (and after that day we ceased to count them) were of an average length of about four and a half to five feet, thick as a man's arm, and repulsively fat. The prevailing suggestion of the creatures when you kill them is fatness.
All the snakes of the Dismal Swamp are shy and timid. Very rarely do they bite, and then only when driven by fear. The largest snake in the swamp is the king-snake, which grows to be ten feet in length. The rattle-snake is fortunately rare in the swamp. It is mostly seen near the Feeder, and is the diamond or water rattle-snake, the largest and most sullenly ferocious of its dread family. It has a brown back, and a dirty yellowish belly. A "swamper" said he had seen one this year that was eight feet long.
The most dangerous snake in the swamp is one of the smallest, called the poplar snake. He is about twelve inches in length, green in color, like that of the poplar tree in which he lives. We escaped him most fortunately, for before we heard of him we had deflowered many poplars of their beautiful blossoms. This snake is a direful pest; from his size and color he is not easily seen; and his poison is said to resemble the rattle-snake's.
The water moccasin is a venomous snake, and it is surprising, considering his countless presence in the swamp, that so few people are bitten. This reptile literally infests all quarters of the swamp. Other snakes, more or less numerous, are the black snake (sometimes nine feet long), the horned snake, and the jointed snake. Abeham and Jim said that they had often killed this latter questionable reptile, and that it had "broken into pieces about two and a half inches long."
In case of snake bites the unvarying practice of the "swampers,, is to bind the limb above the wound tightly, twisting a stick in the ligature, then suck the wound thoroughly, and afterward drink copiously of whiskey. They say that this treatment invariably cures all bites in the swamp, excepting the rattler's. But we only met three or four persons who had known of actual snake bites.
One quality of the moccasin is interesting and worthy of record, his curiosity. These snakes escape rapidly on the approach of a man, but will often return to the place they left to take a look at him. We had a singular instance of this inquisitiveness. One day, on our way round the lake, we came to a deserted "gum road," from which the workers had departed years ago. Mr. Moseley remained at the landing to take a photograph, and I went slowly up the "gum road," hoping to shoot some squirrels. About a hundred yards up the road I came to the rotten old log hut of the "swampers," and there on a heap of bare ashes that still remained in the midst of the grass, lay in loose coils a long, dark snake, which I thought, from his similarity of color to that we had killed some days before, was a king-snake. I resolved to let the benevolent creature go free. He raised his head and looked at me, perhaps for a second, and then, with an easy and graceful slowness, glided into the canebrake. I passed up the road, and was joined by Mr. Moseley and Abeham. On our return I was telling them of the snake, and when we came to the place, all speaking loudly and laughing, I said: "That heap is where the snake lay," and, behold, there he was again, in the same place. He was not ten feet from where we stood. He had concealed his long body behind some leaves and earth, and had placed his head cunningly, as he thought, on the top of the ash heap, where it very closely resembled a dark creeper leaf.. He was evidently prepared for a good look at the intruders. He made no motion as we stood looking at him and talking about him, but stared at us unwinkingly. We were amused at his audacity, and went on calling each other's attention to his method of concealment, and his evident purpose of observation, all the while thinking it was a king-snake. At last Abeham went to stir him up, to see how long he was, when the snake slowly lifted its head, and again Abeham retired in dismay, crying out: "It's a moccasin! Shoot him!" We killed him, and found him to be an unusually large moccasin, not quite five feet long, but very thick and heavy. Strange as it may appear, the chief drawbacks of the Dismal Swamp are not its serpents, or bears, or other formidable wild creatures, but its flies, most pestilent of which are the yellow fly, before which for six weeks in July and August even the colored "swampers" are forced to abandon the "gum roads." The yellow fly raises a burning blister with every bite; and, helped by the "red-horse mosquito," gnats and gallinippers, they can, it is said, kill a mule.
The largest wild animal (except cattle) found in the Dismal Swamp is the black bear. Captain Wallace killed thirty on his farm last winter (by spring guns set around his cornfields), one of which weighed 850 pounds; and "Jim" the friendly "swamper" said he had counted twenty-seven bears crossing a "gum road" one morning on their way to a field on the Suffolk side of the swamp. There are also hog bear (from the size), Seneca bear (white breast), panther, wildcat (numerous and large, about three times the size of the ordinary cat), deer (quite numerous, and some with noble antlers), coon, opossum, rabbit, fox, squirrel, otter, weasel, and muskrat.
One word more about the snakes. One night--(the early summer nights are cool in the swamp) we had an immense fire outside the hut, the logs, five or six feet long, standing on end and sending up a roaring flame. Several "swampers," who had come to sit at our fire and chat, began fishing for catfish, which are attracted by a light. They were pulling them in briskly, and one pulled in a large eel, over two feet in length and very thick. They instantly beheaded him and pulled his skin off, leaving the flayed body to wriggle about in the dust. It was horribly like a snake, and we had to tell Abeham to throw it into the water. The circle had drawn closer to the kindly flame, when one said, pointing to a dark, round object about three yards from the fire: "Is that another eel?"
Every eye was fastened on it, and no one spoke, but Abeham quietly went for a gun, and without a word shot the intruder. It was a moccasin that had come out of the canebrake and coiled himself to enjoy the fire.
One day Moseley was out on the lake fishing, and I was paddling quietly under the trees on the bank, hoping to shoot a red-bird or a crowned thrush for specimens. I heard Moseley hail me, and answered, but then he went on in a very. queer way talking with some one in the swamp beyond me. At last I went out to him and found that he had discovered an echo of wonderful clearness, and which was otherwise interesting. Near the shore I had not heard it, but a quarter of a mile out it was startlingly distinct.
The sound was quite unlike the hard resonance thrown back from cliff, mountain, or cave. It smacked of the swamp in a manner hard to describe. The repetition was largely magnified, though it seemed to be thrown to a distance, and to come from a great height, as if it had bounded up from the wide field of the swamp. The sound had an elastic click about it, like the remote stroke of a woodman's axe. It was the echo from a wood, unmistakably, and not from a wall.
Strange to say, the best word to throw to an echo is its own name. It loves to fling it back unclipped and sudden. Divide the syllables, stopping at the "ech," and it seems to wait impatiently for the "o." We had a long conversation with it, and wondered whether it resided in the dense canebrake and higher foliage that lined the water front, or rebounded upward like a boy's ball that had fallen on the vast concavity of the tree tops.
Abeham said he had never heard of the echo before, and he listened with all his ears, laughing consumedly when the echo shouted defiance; but he would not try it, from shyness as we thought.
We spent the days exploring lake and swamp, returning to camp tired at night, but repaid by our experience. We were seeing the lake and swamp as no one can ever see them without such boats as ours. A heavy boat, with oars, cannot pass through the ditches and canals, nor even coast the lake inside the line of stumps. The negro "dugout" is available for lake and canal, but it is heavy and slow, and it cannot face the lake in rough water and high wind. The birch-bark canoe would get snagged at every length. The only safe and pleasant boat for the swamp is the cedar canoe, and an open one is better than a decked one, to let the moccasins wriggle out if they happen to fall in while you are passing through the narrow canals.
During our passage round the lake we came to very many old and new "gum roads" running into the swamp. We followed these until we saw the nature of each. Some had been deserted apparently scores of years ago, and it was a sorry sight to see the effect of the ruthless timber-cutting which is going on to-day as it was 50 or 100 years ago. No intelligent forestry has ever been applied to the swamp; the selection of the trees has been wholly left to ignorant men. Where whole groves of juniper or cypress were cut down, the cleared land was left to grow up in jungle, and the jungle that follows this cutting is an impenetrable canebrake, through which an elephant could not force his way for a mile. During these wanderings Mr. Moseley never lost an opportunity of capturing a characteristic sketch or photograph, and his pictures faithfully preserve many of the striking features of the swamp.
The beauty and profusion of the vegetation seen from these "gum roads" is indescribable. The greens of the underwood are the intensest hues of nature; the ferns dripping with moisture, the yellow jessamine climbing the great trees, the familiar Virginia creeper rioting in its leaps and lovely hangings. Again and again, not knowing, we were tempted to gather the attractive trumpets of the poisonous oakvine, that is so virulent that to bathe in water in which it hangs will blister and corrupt the flesh. This is Moore's "deadly vine," that
Its venomous tear, and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!"
"There are two things I should like to know," said Moseley, during our last day on the lake, "and one is what that fellow in the Norfolk tug meant by advising us to keep our pistols handy? Surely there could be no men more good-natured and lawful than these poor fellows who work in the swamp."
This was emphatically true. Considering the wild life the "swampers" lead, they are the most harmless, amiable, and, I should say, innocent men I have ever met. Their conversation with us and among themselves was about as light, cheerful, and curious as that of children. They carry no weapons; they are sober, play-loving, and obliging. Only on one colored man in the swamp did we see anything like a weapon, and that was a razor, ostentatiously carried in his waistcoat pocket by a jaunty mulatto; but he had been a great traveller, he said, and he had only come into the swamp to see some friend among the juniper-cutters, though perhaps he had some other reason for a little retirement from society. The swamp is a fine place for a retreat.
"What is the other thing you are in doubt about?" I asked Moseley.
"The wild cattle. We have seen only that red and white cow and calf, though they say they are numerous. I can't believe that that tame-looking cow was wild."
"But what business would a tame cow have in the depths of the swamp, and how could she get home if she had a home to go to?"
He admitted that it was hard to find a domestic reason for the cow being in the swamp, but still he doubted. We were passing at the time through a narrow and dark waterway, where the sheets of deep water under the trees lay like black glass. We came to a dry bank in the morass, and, standing there, quietly and proudly looking at us as we approached, was a red bull about three years old. We stopped paddling and returned the stare. He stood beside our only passage, a narrow one. Abeham was behind, and he shouted, "Look out, dere; dat wild bull dang'ous!"
We shouted at him, but he paid no heed. He was a superb creature, dark red all over, round-headed and very small. We broke branches and waved them and shouted, at a distance from him of about twenty yards. Not an eye winked, but his tail gave one or two quiet waves from side to side. Abeham wanted us to load a rifle, and kill him; but this would be wanton, as we were to leave the swamp the next day. Still we must pass, and he would not move. He paid no attention to a gun pointed at him. The poor fellow was only half wild, one could not help thinking; the hereditary taint of human association was in his blood. Probably his grandfather had fed in a fenced field, and had submitted to be "driven home" by a bare-footed boy.
At last a shot fired into the canebrake close to him gave him a shock. He looked at the canes where the small shot rushed, and then turned and trotted into the swamp.
That night we decided to leave the lake next day, passing through the Feeder and keeping along the main canal until we reached the Pasquotank river in North Carolina.
It rained in torrents in the early part of the night, and then cleared up, and the full moon shone on the lake. It was a scene of marvellous beauty, which color alone, not words, could reproduce. The lake was smooth, and incredibly black, the water retaining absolutely no light, and only appearing to be liquid by surface shining. The moon's reflection, on the contrary, was whiter than it would be on common water, and it crossed the lake like the avenue to a king's palace. It was five o'clock in the morning, and the eastern sky was paling the moon, when we stood on the edge of the lake, with "A health to thee, Tom Moore!" and then we broke camp.
As our canoes shot out on the lake and we looked back on the camp, we knew that the days and nights spent there could never be forgotten.
We crossed the lake in the teeth of a stiff breeze that made the beautiful brown waves leap at us in play, as if to stay our going. It was still early morning when we reached the mouth of the Feeder, and took our last look at the lake, in memory of which Moseley carried the scene off in his camera.
This last look at the lake, between the trees, showed us a tall cypress with immense roots standing up in the deep water, like a suffering mythological tree, condemned and metamorphosed for offending the gods. Then we set our faces toward the outer world, or toward "the bank," as our friends "the swampers" would say, and a lovely passage we had, running with the swift current through the shadowy Feeder. We stopped only twice on our way, once to capture a terrapin that was sunning himself on a log, and again to fire at a snake in the reeds, a shot which was admirably captured with an instantaneous photograph. Reaching the canal, we turned southward toward North Carolina, and at two o'clock reached a station on the canal where there was a store kept by a little man who was as consequential and disobliging as it only lies in the power of a rural magnate to be. Though we had breakfasted early and not very well, we had to proceed hungry on our way.
The locks we came to now lowered us step by step, until at last, having passed South Mills, the largest village on the canal, we were dropped into the tide-water of the Pasquotank river.
After a long and winding way between densely wooded banks, the lonely river gradually widening into a large sheet, we ran after nightfall under a railroad bridge, and saw the lights of a town, or, rather, one solitary lantern set on a wharf, and knew we had reached Elizabeth City, N. C.
We could only see that the main street was shaded with noble elm trees, as we went to the Albemarle Hotel; and it is pleasant to record here that we had a supper and breakfast in this little-heard-of place that would have done credit to Delmonico's for material, cooking, and service.
Next morning we had a look at the city, and a sad one. This was a noted seat of culture, wealth, and fashion before the war, the dread marks of which were still plainly seen on every hand. The main street, that was a pride to the State thirty years ago, was burned by the Confederates themselves to save it from the "invaders." Large squares of house lots are vacant still, grass-grown, and ruin-covered, with here and there a poor, shaky-looking store cheek by jowl with a board shanty filled with negro children.
In walking through this city one could not help moralizing on the awful affliction that befalls a defeated country. Here are the men, middle-aged and still young, who remember the proud and gracious old times, and who are doomed forever to contrast them with the sordid and compromising efforts of hopelessly broken fortunes. Over all the country round about Elizabeth City the fierce waves of war had rolled, leaving a fearful mark. We saw noble houses, once filled with beauty and luxury, now crowded with colored working people; gardens in which the roses, reverting to single-petalled wildness, struggled for sunlight under burdened clothes-lines.
But we saw one house to remember with pleasure, with a rose garden in front of it like a picture from sensuous Pompeii; and then we came away, thinking that Elizabeth City might, indeed, once more awake to proud and prosperous days. But, said the thought, it will take more than a generation for the revival, and the people of the old glory shall not be those of the new. The wealth that was based on slavery was a bubble, and the pride that went with it was a poison for the very earth. God's hand is heavy when the scales come to be balanced. Expiation and atonement are always bitter, however they may be sweetened by the spirit of renunciation. We intended to return to Norfolk by the Chesapeake & Albemarle Canal, the flourishing water-way, crowded with ships, which ought to be only a young rival of the Dismal Swamp Canal, for the latter had all the natural advantages, and also controlled the field.
But the Chesapeake & Albemarle Company had an inferior route, plus intelligence, and the consequence is that it is crowded with commerce, while the Dismal Swamp Canal is traversed by one poor little steamer, the Thomas Newton, that looks like the working model of Fulton's first steamship.
There was a storm raging along the coast, and we could not face bad weather outside in our canoes to get to the other canal, so we shipped our effects on the Thomas Newton to return on our tracks along the whole course of the Dismal Swamp Canal.
The Dismal Swamp could be drained and reclaimed, and a property of very large value would be added to the States of Virginia and North Carolina. While in process of reclamation, and perhaps afterward, the present canals could be retained to get out the timber, which is enormously valuable; but the locks making the central or higher level could be abolished. This would lower the canal and the lake about seven feet. It would be comparatively inexpensive to dredge this level down to the outer levels.
A fall of seven feet in the lake would reduce it perhaps half a mile, leaving all round it a beach of white sand of exquisite fineness. This would at once purify it from the water snakes that make its banks hideous.
The surrounding swamp would drain into the lake, the Feeder and the canals, leaving their banks dry. A road could easily be made on one side, and a clearing on the other, along all these canals, sweeping away moccasins and other water reptiles.
The reduction of the water could be made profitable to the owners in another way. The city of Norfolk needs a water supply, and here is the best water in the country at its very door. If the color of the water be objectionable it could be passed through a filter and made crystal, though it is possible that in the change it might lose its anti-malarial quality.
A narrow-gauge railroad ought to be run from Portsmouth to South Mills. (Since writing this the programme of the Portsmouth & South Mills. railroad has been sent to me, and the promoters have paid me the compliment of inserting as a preface part of my report of the Dismal Swamp. This railroad will complete the ruin of the canal as a commercial way, and will leave it valueless except as a drain.)
And now I have told the story of the Dismal Swamp as two men saw it who had no other interest than that of chance voyagers through the wilderness. I have tried to convey to others exactly the impressions left on my mind, often using restraint in order not to overstate the good or evil qualities of the Dismal Swamp.