The Great Black Swamp

It is hard to believe that there once lay a terrible swamp throughout northwest Ohio nearly to Fort Wayne, Indiana…40 miles wide and 120 miles long. It was the Great Black Swamp, an oozing mass of water, mud, snakes, wolves, wildcats, biting flies, and clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. It was an area as large as the Everglades. Water, often up to the belly of a horse, stood on the surface until it evaporated in the hot summer months. When it rained, or thawed in the winter, it was water and muck. Much of the swamp was covered with an almost impenetrable forest of giant oak, walnut, ash, elm, maple, sycamore, and hickory trees. “Water! Water! Water!” wrote an early surveyor of northwestern Ohio, “tall timber! deep water! Not a blade of grass growing or a bird to be seen.”

The surveyor was traveling the swamp, a forty mile (64 km) swath stretching from the western end of Lake Erie nearly to Fort Wayne, at its former natural extent. But unlike the Everglades, much of the Great Black Swamp was covered by broad leaf trees. Great oaks, elms, ashes and others formed a thick canopy that kept the forest floor in darkness. For most of the year the land lay in water, or ice, and for the summer in black muck. At the last of the Ice Age, the Wisonsinan Glacier worked to create this water-holding area. The glacier built up ridges around its edges, and left behind a lake, which in turn left behind the thick layer of clay at its bottom. The ancient lake also left its beaches as sand ridges, that Indians later used to cross the swamp. While crossing, one might have seen some of the plentiful wildlife, such as boar, bobcat, black bear and timber wolf. Just northwestward of the swamp ran the Maumee river, where the Indians dwelt amid bountiful fishing and hunting, and fertile lands that they turned into great corn fields.

After the press of westward settlement, the government fashioned a road through the Great Black Swamp. “A bank of muck and mud twenty feet wide and about three feet high was build mostly by Ox Power,” wrote a dweller, C. H. Opperman, of the Maumee and Western Reserve Road (now US 20). “Nearly all … who took the swamp route regretted their unwise decision, for many of them had ox teams to draw their high-wheeled covered wagons. Often the Oxen would sink to their bellys and the wheels to the hubbs and in many cases made only a mile or two of progress in a day.” So 31 inns rose to stand along the 31 miles of road to aid the slow moving pioneers. Some men would claim a mud hole and charge money to pull wagons out of it. One traveling pioneer spent his life savings of $100 on getting pulled out of mud holes. So he stopped and staked out his own mud hole, and made his money back before he carried on. After settlers claimed the land around the Great Black Swamp, later settlers turned their sights inside it.

The geography of the swamp retarded major settlement up to the Civil war. “No night was too dark or precinct too sacred for [the mosquitoes] to get in their work,” wrote J. R. Tracy of living on the 80 acres his father bought on a sand ridge in the heart of the Great Black Swamp (where Bowling Green now stands). “Many a meal was eaten with a smudge under the table and many a would be sleeper owed what rest he secured to the smoke that overspread his bed and compelled his bloodthirsty assailants to retire.” The mosquitoes also brought malaria to swamp dwellers. Tracy described his bout with it: “If there is anything in this world that will stay by a fellow when it has found him it is the ague. My! How it will snuggle up to him, and hug him, and squeeze him, and shake him, and freeze him, and then bake him and fry him, until it would seem every drop of moisture is out of him …” After receding, the fever would sometimes return with double strength in a day or two: “And so the round went on, week by week, month by month, sometimes year by year (Brother Isaac was held two years, didn’t go to school or do a day’s work in that time).”

Another swamp settler, Robert Fenton, also lived the hardship of malaria, as well as slow travel, dangerous animals, and the lack of a local mill to grind the grain. But he looked back on it like this: “We were happy, since we all were on about a common level and the exigencies of the situation made us alert, active and energetic. We had to be up and doing and we rather seemed to enjoy it.” In 1840 the Great Black Swamp stood at its last years of full glory. From then on more settlers came in and cut down trees, and dug ditches to drain water off their land – often on to their neighbor’s.

After a big outbreak of the waterborne disease cholera, the Ohio government in 1859 gave counties the power to seize land for more effective ditching. When farmers found that surface ditching left their land still too soggy, some tried underground drains of loose stone, or of pairs of planks nailed into a “V” and laid open end down. Simultaneous to the surface drainage projects, a massive effort was underway timbering the former swamp forest. Virgin timber for the fleets of America and Europe, grade lumber for the farms and the emerging cities of the area, stave wood for the barrel and stave mills, and the left-over slabwood to fuel the hundreds of clay tile mill kilns dotting the counties of the swamp nearly denuded the landscape of these giant trees. The family-owned clay tile mills allowed under-drainage to transform the swamp into Ohio’s most contiguously farmed and productive region. By 1900 the kilns’ product had drained and dried the Great Black Swamp. In its place lay fine farmland, with crops growing on a 10,000 year-old compost heap.