Paddlers take to the water in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS

VA - ‘Morass’ no more: Great Dismal could get new designation

SUFFOLK, Va. – William Byrd, a Colonial-era surveyor and satirist who in 1728 established the dividing line between southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, is credited with blessing the Great Dismal Swamp with its evocative and ominous name.

The million or so acres, he wrote, had air “infected by malignant vapours” rising from “mire and filthiness.” It was, he declared, a “miserable morass” of spongey land, twisted vines and thick undergrowth.

“They started at the Atlantic Ocean and ran into an impenetrable wall of vegetation,” Chris Lowie, the manager of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, related in a recent interview. “And he didn’t even go through it. He told the crew it was the most god-awful dismal place, not fit for anybody.”

Byrd, who died in 1744 at 70, wrote several publications, the “Dividing Line Histories,” “Description of the Dismal, with the Proposal to drain the swamp,” and the somewhat satirical “The Secret History of the Line, “providing in-depth details of his impressions, as well as insights about early 18th-century history.

But three centuries later, Byrd’s vivid assessment of the Colonial-era swamplands, though a nonstarter for today’s tourism brochures, fortunately is part of the reason the Dismal Swamp is currently being considered for designation as a National Heritage Area.

The legislation that directs the secretary of interior to conduct a feasibility study has been passed in Congress and added to the study list, Lowie said. A report with recommendations is due to Congress within three years.

National Heritage Areas, which are administered by the National Park Service, engage communities in collaborative heritage preservation activities that are relevant to its needs and interests. Programs are community-driven and focused on conservation, preservation and economic development.

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