Lake Drummond and Great Dismal Swamp

southeast Virginia, showing Lake Drummond and Union Camp holding ponds to west (at City of Franklin, near Blackwater River)
southeast Virginia, showing Lake Drummond and Union Camp holding ponds to west (at City of Franklin, near Blackwater River)
Source: NASA - Stennis Space Center

Lake Drummond is one of just two natural lakes in Virginia. The origin of the lake is still a mystery. Multiple theories have been advanced, including that the lake was created by a meteor/comet impact, a fire which burned a deep hole in the peat soil, or steady winds after the last ice age that create an elevated barrier of sand which blocked normal drainage.

The lake was named for a former North Carolina governor. He had been an ally of Governor Berkeley of Virginia, but then chose the wrong side in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. After the rebellion collapsed, the last words of Governor Berkeley to William Drummond were:1

Mr. Drummond, you are very welcome. I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia. Mr. Drummond, you shall be hanged in half an hour.

The ground surrounding Lake Drummond includes dry land as well as what early colonists called "dismal" or swampland. People have hunted, fished, and gathered food within the swamp since the Paleo-Indians arrived around 18,000 years ago.

When European colonists arrived, they occupied the sites of Native American villages. Some of the original residents moved permanently into the recesses of the swamp, giving them control over when to contact/hide from the settlers.

Enslaved people also fled into the swamp, and some fugitives successfully escaped their pursuers. Native Americans and escaped enslaved people created permanent "maroon" communities on the islands of dry land, living out of sight of the settlers except when trading was desired. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the Native Americans moved away and the maroon communities were composed predominantly of African-Americans.

In 1714 the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, called the swamp a "No-man’s-land" and complained that "Loose and disorderly people daily flock" to them.

In 1728, William Byrd II led the Virginia team that surveyed the colonial boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. The paths through the swamp were too confusing for him, so he ended up traveling around its northern edge to meet up with the surveyors on the other side. Byrd found the wetlands and the local residents to be so depressing that he wrote in his diary that rum was a necessity.

the creation of the Carolina colony split the Dismal Swamp, and the unclear boundary helped the swamp become a refuge for indentured servants and slaves who escaped from their masters
the creation of the Carolina colony split the Dismal Swamp, and the unclear boundary helped the swamp become a refuge for indentured servants and slaves who escaped from their masters
Source: East Carolina University, New and Correct Map of the Province of North Carolina by Edward Moseley (1733)

After the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp to highlight how the Great Dismal Swamp had became a refuge for enslaved people. The maroons were able to leave their swamp communities after the Civil War led to the end of slavery. A former resident of a maroon community described why people chose to live there until the 1860's:2

There were hardships and deprivations, for sure... But no overseer was going to whip them here. No one was going to work them in a cotton field from sunup to sundown, or sell their spouses and children. They were free. They had emancipated themselves.

the Dismal Swamp was a destination on the Underground Railroad, prior to the Civil War
the Dismal Swamp was a destination on the Underground Railroad, prior to the Civil War
Source: National Park Service, Network to Freedom Map

The dry land is typically peat (dead vegetation that has not decomposed yet, or been compressed into lignite/coal) with sand underneath. Such soil is unsuitable for agriculture, but Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) used to thrive in places high enough for plant roots to grow above the water table.

The cedar is a pioneer species, capable of regrowing from seed after fires/storms and forming dense stands. It is not an "old growth" species that replaces itself, perpetuating Atlantic White Cedar forests indefinitely. Without disturbance, other species such as red maple ultimately dominate land originally covered by Atlantic White Cedar trees.

As one researcher noted:3

The most extensive development of AWC [Atlantic White Cedar] forests occurred on medium to deep peat soils with fire intervals of 100-300 years...

One hundred years allows stands to mature and accumulate an extensive seed bank in the upper few inches of peat. Three hundred years is the approximate longevity of AWC, but at that age, too few trees still remain on the site to maintain a good seed bank or prevent succession to other species...

Atlantic White Cedar has a grain that makes it easy to split/saw. The high resistance to rot also made the species a high-value target for lumber companies. Most forested areas east of the Great Dismal Swamp were harvested in the 1700-1900's, and much of the remaining timber was burned by wildfires.

Forest regeneration was blocked where land was timbered, then ditched and drained for planting crops. Efforts to drain swamps altered the hydrologic regime, triggering the growth of hardwoods and blocking reproduction of Atlantic White Cedar. By one description, the cedar forest were "mined" rather than "managed."4

forest with Atlantic White Cedar at Dismal Swamp
forest with Atlantic White Cedar at Dismal Swamp
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

In 1763, George Washington and 11 other land speculators organized the Dismal Swamp Company and made the first major effort to develop the Great Dismal Swamp. Profits were projected from the sale of timber products, especially shingles split from the cypress trees, and then from farming the land after it was drained to grow food crops and hemp for fiber.

Washington went to the swamp six times before the American Revolution to oversee the effort. Ditches intended to remove the water were excavated by 60 enslaved men, and those ditches also provided a way to float timber products to market at Suffolk. The first ditch excavated is still known as Washington Ditch.

multiple ditches drain Lake Drummond and Great Dismal Swamp
multiple ditches drain Lake Drummond and Great Dismal Swamp
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The National Map - Hydrography

In 1785, after the American Revolution, Washington and others planned to import 300 Dutch laborers and invest more capital in the draining of the swamp. The Dismal Swamp Company's economic opportunity increased when construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal started in 1793.

At that time, Washington was serving as the first President of the United States in Philadelphia. He chose to sell his shares in the Dismal Swamp Company to "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, and ceased his direct personal involvement with the efforts to convert swampland into farmland.

Timber operations became profitable about the time that George Washington's estate reacquired the shares in 1809, since "Lighthorse Harry" Lee failed to pay. The investors shifted strategy and abandoned the capital-intensive efforts to ditch the Dismal Swamp and create dry farmland.

Over 200 years later, other entrepreneurs would succeed in draining the Everglades and convert some of that massive wetland into farmland. That process required building dikes around Lake Okeechobee and redirecting flow into artificial ditches. The resulting sugar plantations were far more profitable than the effort to convert the Dismal Swamp into farmland.

Jerico Ditch, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Jerico Ditch, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library

The Dismal Swamp Company was rechartered as the Dismal Swamp Land Company, and it focused on cutting and processing the trees. Private owners stripped the forest for the next 150 years.5

in 1954, the new City of Chesapeake had replaced Norfolk County on the eastern edge of Lake Drummond, but the City of Suffolk had not yet replaced Nansemond County on the west
in 1953, the new City of Chesapeake had replaced Norfolk County on the eastern edge of Lake Drummond, but the City of Suffolk had not yet replaced Nansemond County on the west
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Lake Drummond 7.5x7.5 topographic map (1953)

Camp Manufacturing Company purchased the land of the Dismal Swamp Land Company in 1909. By the 1950's, the Great Dismal Swamp was one of the last remaining areas with a substantial Atlantic White Cedar forest. It was at least second-growth forest, after the last 20,000 acres of virgin timber were cut in the decade after World War II.

The Union Camp Corporation, successor to the Camp Manufacturing Company, donated 49,000 acres of logged-over swampland to The Nature Conservancy in 1973. The non-government organization transferred the property to the Federal government in 1974. The Nature Conservancy sold an additional 14,000 acres south of the Virginia border to North Carolina. That state managed its swampland property originally as a State Natural Area, and then opened Dismal Swamp State Park in 2008.

Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Comprehensive Conservation Plan

Today, Lake Drummond is in the middle of the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior. Further land acquisition has expanded the refuge's property in Virginia and North Carolina to over 110,000 acres. That is only 10% of the size of the original 1.3 million acres of swamp that existed before European colonization.

Creating the refuge defined a new priority for managing water levels at Lake Drummond. The Corps of Engineers must coperate with the US Fish and Wildlife Service before releasing water into the Feeder Ditch to support navigation in the Dismal Swamp Canal. During drought periods, the top priority now is conservation of natural resources rather than pleasure boat navigation.6

One goal of the US Fish and Wildlife Service is to re-plumb the swamp in order to restore the natural flow of water. The Federal agency and Dismal Swamp State Park in North Carolina manage numerous water-control structures. They mitigate the effects of the historic ditches and logging roads that have created drier-than-natural and wetter-than-natural areas.

The organic soils in the swamp are normally 85-95% water. When those soils dry out, the soil particles alter into a granular form that will not absorb water even after water levels rise again. The soil then oxidizes away, adding carbon to the atmosphere. Keeping the soils saturated is essential for minimizing the intensity and size of wildfires in the Great Dismal Swamp.7

Hurricanes and major forest fires, influenced by the altered drainage, alter the ecosystem even more rapidly. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel flattened 80% of the purest cedar stands in the refuge, after soil dried out and roots were unable to withstand the wind pressure. Fires - and prevention of fires - threaten the continued existence of the Atlantic white cedar plant community:8

Many communities within the GDS [Great Dismal Swamp] are pioneer or early successional species, which will be replaced by longer-lived climax species if not disturbed. These communities include the Atlantic white cedar, shrub pocosin, marsh and sphagnum bog. Each of these vegetative communities was historically a result of wildfire and/or maintained by fire. Wildfires have been aggressively suppressed since the 1940’s resulting in reduced size and vitality of dominant species. With the changes in water regime throughout the swamp and the surrounding urbanization, permitting drought-driven wildfires to burn today is not an option.

Management of these communities must create the disturbance required for regeneration or maintenance. Strategies include the use of herbicides, and/or timber sales to reduce competition, surface preparation completed by scarifying with heavy equipment, and/or carefully conducted site preparation prescribed burns...

The refuge cannot manage the adjacent cropland to slow incoming surface water, nor can it abandon or remove the roads within the swamp because compaction has already altered the substrate and road access must be maintained to fight wildfires. The refuge cannot abandon the ditches because the clay-confining layer cannot be replaced over the aquifer.

The refuge can operate and maintain a number of water control structures that slow discharge of both surface and ground water from the swamp and serve to mitigate many of the impacts of these developments.

The 100 miles of ditches within the Great Dismal Swamp have resulted in a lower water table, draining away rainfall before it can seep into the peat. The moist soil, essential to growth of the Atlantic White Cedar, has dried out. In 2011, a fire started in early August and burned for 110 days. The 12" of rain that fell during Hurricane Irene in late August drained out of the swamp so quickly that the wildfire was not drowned by the massive amount of rain.9

Dismal Swamp Lateral West fire from space, August 2011
Dismal Swamp Lateral West fire from space, August 2011
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth Observatory, Fire in Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia

imagery from the Landsat 5 satellite shows the area southwest of the lake already burned by the Lateral West fire by August 15, 2011
imagery from the Landsat 5 satellite shows the area southwest of the lake already burned by the Lateral West fire by August 15, 2011
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth Observatory, Hurricane Irene Dampens Great Dismal Swamp Fire

In 2013, Federal land managers installed new weirs to raise water levels in the ditches, hoping to re-saturate the peat and restore the natural ecosystem over time. The US Fish and Wldlife Service proclaimed that re-watering 9,500 acres, by controlling flow in South Martha Washington Ditch and Kim Saunders Ditch, was the largest restoration project for forested wetlands east of the Mississippi River.

Keeping the peat wet was predicted to trap an amount of carbon equal to what 16 million cars emit annually. Additional water control structures added in 2017 increased the ability to manage water levels in the northern 30,000 acres of the refuge. In addition to encouragaging regowth of the Atlantic white cedar, the enhanced water management would allow Federal officials to retain water to reduce fire risk and to extinguish fires that do start.

The Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager noted:10

When you’ve got 1½ million people pretty much downwind, our job is not to let it burn.

Water levels of the lake and swamp are controlled by Federal land managers. During dry periods, the Corps of Engineers opens gates at the western end of the Feeder Ditch to release water into Dismal Swamp Canal in order to maintain the 6' deep shipping channel (Route #2 on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Marine Highway M-95). Water is also released when lake levels rise too high.

In 2016, over 30 inches of rain fell on Hampton Roads in September/October in three storms, Hermine, Julia and Matthew. The 11 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Julia at Lake Drummond were a surprise; only 4 inches had been predicted. The Corps opened all spillway gates on the Dismal Swamp Canal to reduce the water level in the shipping channel, then opened the Lake Drummond spillway gates.

Dismal Swamp Canal, a Corps of Engineers project
Dismal Swamp Canal, a Corps of Engineers project
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway General Information

The gates stayed open for 11 days, reducing the lake level by 9 inches before the arrival of Hurricane Mathew. That storm dropped another 11-12 inches of rain, creating highest water levels ever recorded on the canal. It took over a year for the Corps to dredge the sand and remove the trees blocking the canal before it reopened.

However, the shift between fire and flooding risk is swift. The next few months were dry, and the refuge manager began to worry just four months later that the swamp would be on fire again by the early summer.11

Corps of Engineers water management after Tropical Storm Julia and Hurricane Mathew mitigated flooding at Lake Drummond
Corps of Engineers water management after Tropical Storm Julia and Hurricane Mathew mitigated flooding at Lake Drummond
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (July 27, 2017)

despite Corps of Engineers water management efforts, Hurricane Mathew flooding the spillway and boathouse at Lake Drummond
despite Corps of Engineers water management efforts, Hurricane Mathew flooding the spillway and boathouse at Lake Drummond
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (July 27, 2017)

Hunting deer and the 300 bears in the wildlife refuge is authorized. The "natural" character of the refuge has been modified heavily by ditching and timber harvesting. There are few structures, but the landscape is controlled by Fish and Wildlife Service and Corps of Engineers intervention to keep the swamp wet.

A wet Dismal Swamp provides excellent habitat for breeding mosquitoes in the summer; visitors to the 113,000-acre wildlife refuge get to experience annoying as well as attractive critters. The mosquitoes are considered wildlife, like bears and birds. Because the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is Federally-protected, the City of Suffolk is not allowed to spray chemicals within the refuge to kill the mosquitoes.12

The effect of that prohibition extends beyond the refuge boundaries. Mosquitoes are the primary vector that transfers Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile virus from birds in the refuge to horses and humans in the cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake. There is a tradeoff between protecting natural processes in natural areas vs. protecting human health. People and horses in South Hampton Roads have a higher risk of exposure to some diseases, because the habitat and animal populations (including mosquitoes) within Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge are protected.

Dismal Swamp Canal

Draining the Swamps of Virginia

Lakes, Dams, and Reservoirs

Mountain Lake

Origin of Lake Drummond and Great Dismal Swamp

Lateral West Forest Fire burns towards Corapeake Ditch at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, 2011
Lateral West Forest Fire burns towards Corapeake Ditch at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, 2011
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library

Links

a portion of Lake Drummond is located in the City of Suffolk, but all of the Feeder Ditch leading to the Dismal Swamp Canal at Arbuckle Landing is within the City of Chesapeake
a portion of Lake Drummond is located in the City of Suffolk, but all of the Feeder Ditch leading to the Dismal Swamp Canal at Arbuckle Landing is within the City of Chesapeake
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Lake Drummond USGS Topo Revision 1 (2013)

References

1. Dictionary of Virginia Biography. (2010, June 9). William Drummond (d. 1677). Retrieved September 12, 2010, from Encyclopedia Virginia: http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Drummond_William_d_1677 (last checked September 12, 2010)
2. "Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom," Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/ (last checked January 5, 2019)
3. John E. Kuser, George Zimmermann, "Restoring Atlantic White-Cedar Swamps: A Review of Techniques for Propagation and Establishment," Tree Planters Notes, Volume 46, Number 3, Summer 1995, http://www.stockton.edu/~wcedars/treeplnt.html (last checked July 6, 2013)
4. L. Eric Hinesley, "Research at N. C. State University related to regeneration of Atlantic White Cedar (AWC) and Baldcypress," US Fish and Wildlife Service, August 2002, http://www.fws.gov/nc-es/coastal/plnwrawc/atlanticwhitecedarresearch.html (last checked July 6, 2013)
5. "Dismal Swamp Company," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/dismal-swamp-company/ (last checked January 5, 2018)
6. "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan," p.4; Aimlee D. Laderman, "The Ecology Of Atlantic White Cedar Wetlands: A Community Profile," US Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Report 85, July 1989, p.19, http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/techrpt/85-7-21.pdf; "Dismal Swamp Canal - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form," US Army Corps of Engineers, December 1, 1987, http://www.cityofchesapeake.net/Assets/documents/departments/planning/Historic-Registry-dismal_swamp_canal.pdf; "History of the Dismal Swamp," Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, https://dismalswampwelcomecenter.com/history/; "History," Dismal Swamp State Park, North Carolina State Parks, https://www.ncparks.gov/dismal-swamp-state-park/history (last checked January 5, 2019)
7. "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan," pp.38-39; "Swamp’s 'Hoover Dam' dedicated," Suffolk News-Hearal, December 18, 2013. http://www.suffolknewsherald.com/2013/12/18/swamps-hoover-dam-dedicated/ (last checked April 15, 2014)
8. "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan," pp.21-22, p.59
9. "Dam-like devices will help fight fires at Dismal Swamp," The Virginian-Pilot, December 19, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/node/700673; "Great Dismal Swamp wildfire still burning after more than 2 months," Washington Post, October 6, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/2011/10/05/gIQALlJYRL_story.html (last checked April 15, 2014)
10. "Largest Wetland Restoration East of the Mississippi Dedicated at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge," US Fish and Wildlife Service, December 18, 2013, https://www.fws.gov/FieldNotes/regmap.cfm?arskey=34553; "$3.1 million project aims to take some teeth out of the fires, floods that plague the Dismal Swamp," The Virginian-Pilot, March 17, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/environment/article_a70aded2-27e4-52ff-9e2e-6f7045974fc8.html (last checked January 2, 2019)
11. Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway," US Army Corps of Engineers, July 27, 2017, http://www.cityofchesapeake.net/Assets/documents/departments/public_works/AIWUpdate.pdf; "$3.1 million project aims to take some teeth out of the fires, floods that plague the Dismal Swamp," The Virginian-Pilot, March 17, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/environment/article_a70aded2-27e4-52ff-9e2e-6f7045974fc8.html (last checked January 2, 2019)
12. "Regulations are barriers to mosquito control in Suffolk," The Virginian-Pilot, July 6, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/node/682517 (last checked July 6, 2013)

Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge brochure

shingles were shipped via the Jericho Ditch to Suffolk
shingles were shipped via the Jericho Ditch to Suffolk
Source: University of North Carolina, Railroad map of North Carolina (c.1861)


Rivers and Watersheds
Virginia Places