Florida is known for many things. It is home to VC’s stalwart, Geolurking. It has beach life, of the teenage variety. It has Disneyland, of the toddler-of-any-age variety. It has launched space missions to the outermost planets and put men (but not women) on the Moon. It attracts retirees from all over the US and gave us the Redneck Riviera. But it also has the oldest city in the US (1565). In the not-too-distant future, it will be the first US state to lose valuable real estate to the rising sea. It has one of the most famous swamps of the world, with the evocative name of Everglades. And Florida is home to the only known swamp volcano in the world. That is a story worth retelling.
The legend of the volcano
The smoke had seemed everlasting. For many years, in the 19th century, there had been a column of smoke rising above the Wakulla swamp. It was called the old man of the swamp smoking his pipe. Stories abounded. When had it started? None could recall. It seemed to have been there as long as people could remember. Even the Spanish had noticed the mist over the swamp, as early as 1538 when De Soto explored the region. Did not the name ‘Wakulla’ mean ‘mist? They had even used the pillar of smoke for navigation: it was visible 30 miles away and ships used it to find the river outlet that led the way to the fort at the St Marks river. In-land, at Tallahassee, the smoke could clearly be seen from the court house, built on a hill. What caused the smoke? The Spanish blamed a pirate camp which none but the pirates knew how to reach. The American settlers attributed it to an Indian camp, at a time when they were in hiding. During the war, it was considered a secret camp of confederate soldiers – a Union ship even attempted to shell the source of the smoke. But there were no longer any pirates, Indians, or confederate soldiers, and still the pillar of smoke continued. By night, light as of fire could be seen, reflected against the smoke. There had to be a volcano in the middle of the swamp.
After newspapers picked up on it in the 1880’s, it quickly became known as the Florida or Wakulla Volcano. Many people tried to find the location but foundered in the impassable swamp where boats could not go because of the vegetation, swimmers became food for the waiting alligators, and walking along the trees meant feeding the black clouds of mosquitos. There always had to be a second person at hand, armed, to shoot attacking panthers and snakes, but guns were useless against insects. The nearest view of the smoke was from the St Marks river, perhaps 5 miles from the source. After that, the parties proceeded blind. One New York reporter reportedly died in the quest for the volcano. One group told about finding a 100-meter high volcanic cone. Another found huge smouldering rocks lying around a crater. Then, on 31 August 1886, Charleston, in South Carolina, was destroyed by massive earthquake. It was felt from Boston to New Orleans. Nearby, Lake Jackson suddenly emptied. And in the Wakulla Swamp, the volcano went out. The smoke disappeared and the volcano was never seen again. But all the locals remembered it. And every few years, another party -invariably young men- would try to find the source – and would fail. Newspapers all over the US regularly published articles on new hypotheses on the cause: a swamp volcano, an everlasting peat fire, an oil gusher, or escaping gas. But to this day, we do not know what caused the Wakulla Volcano – or even where precisely it was. Not even Google Earth has been able to locate the source. The mystery of the Wakulla Volcano remains unsolved.
So far the legend, regularly republished in articles of varying reputability. What is the truth? Was there really a volcano hiding in the Florida jungle? And if so, what could have made it disappear?
No one would expect a volcano in Florida. The geology to support one isn’t there. There is no hot spot, no spreading ridge, nor any subduction. Volcanoes in the US are on the western side of the continent. But dig far enough down, and almost anywhere in the world you will find evidence of volcanic activity in the distant past. That is true in Florida as well. In fact, its history is more interesting than many.
Let’s go back to Pangea. Florida at that time was in the centre of the continent, surrounded by bits of North America, Africa and Europe. Florida is sitting on a platform that stretches to Cuba and beyond: at that time, that was all a single entity. But there was stress coming from two directions. From the East came the Tethys: an ocean that had started to form in China and gradually extended westward. It passed the Middle East where it formed massive oil deposits underneath what is now the Persia Gulf. It grew past Europe. The final push was towards the embryonic Gulf of Mexico. Simultaneously, the Atlantic Ocean began to form, splitting America from Europe. This was not a simple process. Many different rifts formed, each of which developed for some time but most died out again. One of these trials runs across the north of Florida, the Georgia Seaway. It was a basin that connected the Gulf with the newly forming Atlantic Ocean. If it had succeeded, Florida would now be part of Caribbean, the US would be one state smaller, and Al Gore would have become president. It was not to be.
Volcanic rocks formed during these phases of geological activity. But they are deeply buried under kilometers of sediment. Nowadays, the region is at sea level, and not by accident. Sediment from the sea keeps it there. Water is an essential feature of this land. So are the regular drenchings by hurricanes, which come as often as one every 3 to 5 years on average. The limestone forms caves, and rivers sometimes flow above ground, sometimes below. Brackish water can be found far in-land showing how deeply connected the wetlands are to the Gulf. The origin of the land is far underground. The surface is young, wet, and entirely non-volcanic.
From fact to legend
To test the verity of the legend of the Florida Volcano, one should first look at the credentials of the location. Wakulla may not be the most famous location in the US, but it does exist, and it has enough history to impress. The Spanish arrived here in 1528. The area changed hands several times: it was variously Apalachee, Spanish, French and British, and later was owned by two versions of the US. The word ‘Wakulla’ has an Indian origin but as the originating language has long been extinct, the meaning is not certain. The word may refer to ‘spring’ or ‘water’ (which is ‘kala’ in some local languages): the area is known for a large fresh water spring.
The main towns which feature in the stories are indeed old. St Marks is a small town along the river, a little distance from the sea, and started as a Spanish settlement, fort and lighthouse. It became a town in the 1820’s. There was a larger town at the coast itself, along the same river, St Leon, but this was destroyed by a hurricane. In-land, in the hills, Tallahassee was an Indian settlement, and De Soto wintered there in 1538. A Spanish mission was built in 1633. It became Florida’s state capital in 1824 and developed into a significant town, focussed around cotton farming and the slave trade.
In between the two was an impenetrable coastal swamp. The rivers running through it were also quite impassable. Even nowadays, the area between Newport and Perry, 40 miles across, is nearly empty of habitation.
The reports located the smoke as coming from an area southeast of Tallahassee, and west of the Aucilla river. One report puts it at 5 miles from the coast. That puts it close to the border between Wakulla and Jefferson counties, in or just west of what is now the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area (the name is a euphemism for hunting). It would be along road 59. The area was a large swamp, 25 miles across, through which the Wacissa river ‘flowed’. The ancient forest was clear-cut in the 1930’s and it is still recovering from this.
So far, so good. The towns existed at the right time and were well known. The area that the smoke reportedly came from was indeed an unreachable terra incognita. It is time to go to the eye-witness reports.
In 1881, the author Maurice Thompson wrote a book ‘A Tallahassee Girl’ in which he extensively referred to the phenomenon. Following this, he wrote an article about in the Chicago Times. This article was reprinted in many local newspapers. I have taken the following from the Chillicothe, Livingstone County, Aug 4, 1881, as this version was available on-line.
‘About twenty eight miles from this city [Tallahassee], in the midst of a densely timbered marsh, there has been seen for more than forty years a dense column of smoke, rising almost constantly, and defying the investigation of the curious. It has long been locally known as the Wakulla Volcano, from the fact that is located at no great distance from the famous Wakulla Spring. Only yesterday I stood upon a high hill south of the city and watched the smoke roll up and drift away from that mysterious spot whither as yet no human foot has wandered. Judge White, formerly of the circuit court here, and now a leading lawyer of this city, has furnished me a great deal of information touching the so-called volcano. In fact it was he who headed the most nearly successful of the many parties which have from time to time attempted to explore the mystery. The New York Herald once organised a corps of discovery, which most disastrously failed to accomplish its object, the leader losing himself in the awful morass and nearly starving himself before finding his way out.‘
The piece goes on to describe Judge White’s expedition, which failed due the impenetrable swamp, the millions of ravenous mosquitos and alligators. It mentions that people in the area had seen the smoke for at least 45 years. At times the smoke appeared white. Several other newspapers have more information, where it is described that Gulf fishermen ‘say it sometimes entirely disappears for an hour or more, then suddenly it leaps up, like the smoke and gas from a great powder explosion, but without any noise. At other times the smoke rolls up in a heavy black fleece like that from a huge tar-kiln, and anon it becomes a thin, wavering veil of white vapor hovering over the mysterious spot. At night a dull, flickering light accompanies the column of smoke, showing that fire is there. Occasionally this light is increased to great power, casting a strong reflection upon the clouds and skv. The fishermen say that water-fowl of all kinds in their flight across the Swamp avoid passing over the spot whence the smoke issues, even when the column is not visible.
Some reports aimed more for the gullible but at least indicate the phenomenon was well known. In 1879, a brief story appeared in several newspapers stating (quoting the Cincinnati daily star, Sept 12 1879) ‘It has been privately informed that the location of the so-called Florida Volcano in Wakulla County has been explored, and that the discoverers found amazing natural curiosities in the way of boiling medical springs etc. The matter has been kept quite secret, but a company has been formed in Washington which has purchased the land and intend making roads, hotels and other conveniences for visitors’
The oldest report I have found is in The New Orleans Republican in 1875: ‘For many years past there has been noticed a column of smoke or steam arising from an impenetrable swamp a short distance from the gulf coast in Wakulla county. Many attempts have been made to discover the cause but thus far no person has been successful in penetrating the location in consequence of the character of the location.’
There is an article in The Lakeland evening telegram from December 1916 claiming that the smoke was seen in 1864, with the story attributed to the New York Times. I have some doubts. The New York Times at that time did run a story about the ‘Florida Volcano’ but reading it reveals that it was about the possibility of a rebellion by black slaves in Florida, during the American war. Several sources do state that the smoke was seen from at least the 1840’s. For instance, The Florida dispatch in 1883 writes ‘This “column of smoke” has existed and been seen by the oldest inhabitants of the county for the past fifty years. Indeed, it was so constantly visible, that during the war the “blockading vessels became suspicious of its being a Rebel camp for the manufacture of arms and ammunition, and on several occasions threw shells at it.” Any clear, calm morning the smoke can be seen from the tower of the St. Mark’s light-house, or from the hill tops around Wakena.’
W. Cash, in a letter written in 1934, gives another account: ‘My mother as a young woman often saw the smoke and even blaze of the “volcano” from where her parents were living, near Waukeenah, during the years 1869 or 1870 and two or three thereafter.’ He suggests that it began around 1867. William Wyatt in the Tallahassee Historical Society Journal in 1935 writes that 50 years before, visitors in Tallahassee went up in the Capitol dome to see the thin column of smoke rising above the trees. That puts it in the mid 1880’s.
So where did the story come from that it had been seen much earlier? The main source seems to be Maurice Thompson. In his book, he wrote ‘It was first talked of in the early days when St. Mark’s was just beginning to be known as a landing-place for Gulf-coast vessels. The sailors saw it, from far out on the water, a tall, slender column, now black like pitch-smoke, now gray like the smoke from burning leaves, and anon white like steam.’ There are no Spanish records of the phenomenon , and although several sources make reference to Indian stories, none give actual wordings and none appear to be first-hand. One may also question the alleged shelling of the site by Union ships: the navy ordnance had a reach of 1-2 miles, putting the location well out of reach. Thompson states that he learned about the history from the judge, Woodson White. A quick trawl through the Florida records showed that the judge Pleasants Woodson White died in Quincy, on 12 May 1919, two weeks shy of his 99th birthday, and was born on 25 May 1820 near Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia. His wife was from Tallahassee; they married in 1848 and their five children were born in Florida from 1850 onward. The 1860 and 1870 census show the family living in Quincy. His mother had died in 1824, and his father, David Lindsay White (1781-1862) was born in Sparta, Georgia. The judge likely moved to Tallahassee well before 1850. The stories may thus have come from his personal recollection (although Quincy was a little too far to see the smoke), or he may have passed on stories from others. It is interesting that when Thompson writes in 1881 that the smoke has been present for at least 45 years, that takes us back to near 1837 – this may refer to the length of time his primary source, White, had been living in the area. White was already in his mid-fifties when making the quest for the volcano, described below.
So it appears plausible that the smoke was present in the late 1860’s. If the stories that it was seen in the war are correct, it would be a little earlier, in the early 1860’s. But we lack confirmation of these stories: they are only mentioned in material that was published 1 to 2 decades later. Anything earlier is possible but remains unproven.
The duration is equally uncertain. The Lakeland evening telegram from December 1916, already mentioned, states that it disappeared shortly after the Charleston earthquake (1886), but doesn’t say how long after. It had certainly been long gone by 1916. W. Cash suggests that the last appearance may have been in 1883.
The smoke was one thing. How about the associated light? The clearest reference is from The New York Times in 1880. Their report suggests that it was a recent or occasional addition to the smoke column: ‘On Sunday night, a week ago, a large bright light was seen in a south-easterly direction from this city (Tallahassee], which attracted the attention of many of our citizens at first, but concluding that it was a house on fire, they thought but little more of the matter until the light reappeared several succeeding nights in the same place, and put them to thinking again. It is much brighter some nights than others—sometimes having the appearance of the moon rising, but generally much brighter, and looking more like a large fire shooting its flaming tongue high up into the upper realms, frequently reflected back by passing clouds. During the past week we have conversed with several parties living in that direction, all of whom had noticed the light, and located it in the great swamp south-east of here, on the Gulf coast, and about the same spot from whence the much-talked-of column of black smoke has been seen to issue for years, supposed to be a volcano, which no living man has ever been able to reach, from the fact of its being surrounded by an impenetrable swamp. We were told last Tuesday by a gentleman living in Wakula County, near this noted swamp, that the light had created much excitement in his neighborhood, as a loud, rumbling noise was frequently heard in the direction of it during the week. The noise was said to be so loud Thursday, about midnight, as to arouse the sleeping family of Mr. Frank Duggle, and cause them to get up and run out doors, thinking another earthquake was on hand.’ Poor Mr Duggle, being awoken by an alleged swamp volcano!
All reports agree that the main person looking for the source was the ex-judge and lawyer, P. Woodson White. To give the story in his own words, again quoted from the Chilicotte of 1881:
“Some years ago I determined to visit the spot and solve the mystery of that smoke. I felt sanguine of success. I believed then as I do now, that some thing in the form of an active volcano, but of course of very small dimensions, could easily be found. I organized a party of active young men, and, arming myself with a surveyor’s transit, set out for the scene of exploration. From a high point of land I trained my instrument upon the smoke column, and having fixed on the line ordered my men to begin cutting away into the swamp, which at the start was bad enough, but gradually grew worse until progress was next to impossible. Cypress, ash, oak, elders, vines, air-plants, briars, long moss, every tiling that ever grew in swamps grew there in a tenfold tangle- of luxuriance. The weather was terribly hot, for in order to get through the wettest parts we had to choose midsummer for our exploit, and, after two days of sweltering among the moccasins, alligators and mosquito, all my men deserted the enterprise, leaving me and a plucky colored lad to go on alone. Progress at once became painfully slow. Every foot of the way had lo be chopped out while we stood in water from one to three feet in depth, and suffered the assaults of millions of ravenous insects. In the afternoon of the third day we reached a tall pine standing on a sandy hillock in the swamp. By cutting cleats and nailing them transversly to the side of this tree, as I had proposed to do before beginning the exploration, I was enabled to climb to the height of ninety feet, whence I viewed the smoke column rising from the midmost tangle of the swamp, not more than five miles distant. The immediate point where the smoke issued seemed to be the apex of a flat mound of about a mile in width, covered with a mass of swamp growth absolutely impenetrable. My resolution forsook me, and nearly dead with exposure and fatigue, I made my way back to the track I had cleared. “
There is in fact an earlier report from the same expedition. An 1875 article in the Spectator is based on a member of the expedition and states ‘After entering the swamp the party discovered an immense rock in the form of in inverted cone, rising to the height of a hundred feet, which was regarded as the cone of an extinct volcano. Fragments from it are light like pumice stone, and abundance of scoria and ashes are to be found, together with most all the features peculiar to those of recent volcanic disturbance. ’
The judge himself said that all but one member of his expedition abandoned him well before they got anywhere near the locality, this eye-witness account can be attributed to make-belief. There are also later reports of the same event. In one of these, it was the reporter who climbed the tree and fell out. We can again consider the Judge himself as the more reliable source. Whether the reporter ever existed is not clear. Some stories claim he died on the attempt, others that he nearly did so, but the reporter himself appears not to have reported back. The story of the dead reporter re-appeared in newspapers in 1891, a kind of resurrection of the (nearly) dead.
In 1893, news came that the source of the smoke had been found. The discoverer was J.Q. Martin, a prospector for phosphate. Martin himself wrote
‘After having gone about one third the length of the swamp the ground began to be honey-combed with holes, sometimes five feet deep, made by fire. The ground was dry between them, but vines, briers and fallen logs everywhere made it difficult. The water in the deepest holes was salt, from which I take it that the land in that part is but little above the gulf. One night I camped in an open place and had made up my mind to go back next day. The mosquitoes and owls kept me awake and I slept but little. I sometimes heard a booming noise in the distance and saw flames reflected on the sky. I had almost forgotten this “volcano,’ but took my bearings and resolve to go there the next day.
“Well, I traversed worse ground than I had thought could exist. Holes everywhere, with very miry bottoms; sometimes ponds acres in extent, hollowed out by fire. The air was smoky and the stench from dead fish and rotten water terrible in the hot sun. At noon I came where the ground was still burning and here was the solution of the mystery.
The earth was solely composed of coarse vegetable matter, which burns like tinder when not too wet. In the heaviest rains some fire that has got into a rotten log will smolder for weeks, only to ignite the ground again when dry enough. At some places a kind of moss grew which shed water like a rubber coat. A subterranean outlet for rain water drains the land. Sometimes there would be a heavy growth of pine needles fall point foremost, and often straddle the twigs. When the fire comes to such a place the dry pine needles burn on the bushes to their very tops, and the flames next devour the top of the pines themselves. The smoke is black as night, and will ascend for days and be seen at long distance, and at night the sky looks red. And this is all there is about the ‘Florida volcano.’ I could guide any one to the spot, It must have burned for one hundred years, and there is muck enough to burn for one thousand years to come.” (Morning journal and courier. New Haven [Conn.], July 27, 1893).
This suggests that the fire and smoke still existed at that time. There are a few other claims that the smoke was seen as late at 1891 but none are confirmed.
There are several stories from the 1920’s and 1930’s about later expeditions to the site. Finds were claimed, but the descriptions read like sinkholes, surrounded by eroded rocks.
The conclusion is that there was indeed something ablaze in the swamps of Wakulla and Jefferson. It started in the 1860’s: stories of a much older origin are not supported by the reports and should be considered mythical. It may have been present during the American war but this may also be part of legend. It lasted for 2 or 4 decades. There is no evidence that the earthquake of 1886 had anything to do with the ending, but the smoke clearly attracted much less attention after this time. When the area was opened up for exploration, in the 1920’s, the evidence for the events had disappeared. Time had covered it up.
No volcano could be that small, that long lasting, or exist under these geological conditions. Calling it the ‘Florida Volcano’ may have been good advertising; it was not good science. This was exactly what it appeared to be: a long-lasting fire. And there is indeed a substance which forms under swampy conditions, and when it catches fire is near impossible to extinguish: peat. As was indicated by prospector Martin, the decaying vegetation stored below ground had caught fire.
Peat fires are a normal part of swamp life. An example is in the Great Dismal Swamp in South Virginia. In 2011, there was a fire which burned for almost four months. Even Hurricane Irene could not extinguish the flames. Once the fire gets into the underground peat, it is insulated from the rain and can continue for a long time. Lake Drummond, located in the Great Dismal Swamp, appears to have formed through such a long-lasting fire. It consumed meters of peat, until the subsiding ground was flooded. How did the fire in Wakulla get started? In such an isolated area, one should look for natural causes. A lightning strike setting trees on fire, and the roots transferring the heat into the ground, perhaps. How did it end? That is as unclear as the when. But we can speculate. The area was hit by a number of bad hurricanes in the 1880’s, while there were fewer storms in the 1870’s. For instance, the year 1886 was not a good one around St Mark. It was hit by a category two hurricane on June 21, followed by another storm on June 30. A year later, Pensacola got 200 mm of rain from a hurricane on July 27, 1887. There were other storms in that decade and the next. It is possible that one such storm did a Houston and put the fire under water.
Finally, we can speculate once more. Google maps shows a lake next to road 59, where the satellite map shows nothing but trees. Could this disappearing lake have been the remnant of the fire? Probably not – but if Lake Drummond is a type specimen, the Wakulla fire may indeed have had a similar end. Perhaps the remnant of the Florida Volcano is still there, lurking in the water.
Albert Zijlstra, January 2018
A good starting point for reading about the Florida Volcano is http://www.tallahasseemagazine.com/November-December-2015/The-Search-for-Truth-Keeps-Local-Legends-Alive/. Another resource is http://www.wakullavolcano.info.
Update: More information on Woodson White is available from https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/historical_architecture_main/4859/ indicating that he had lived in Quincy since his youth.