If you were alive sometime between the 1860s and the 1880s (or perhaps the 1500s and the 1820s) and were to stand atop any high point in the city of Tallahassee and gaze due south (or maybe southeast) you may or may not have seen a distinct column of black (or white) smoke, perhaps illuminated white (or green), rising out of the impenetrable Wacissa Swamp in Wakulla (or Jefferson) County.
The smoke is only a trace of one of the most elusive and enigmatic of all of Florida’s great legends, or as novelist Maurice Thompson wrote, a “permanent and persistent mystery—the greatest physical phenomenon in Florida:” the Wakulla Swamp Volcano.
Over the years, the column of smoke spawned a few fringe theories and legends (in addition to the volcanic hypothesis), including:
- a hidden camp of pirates and smugglers,
- a collection of moonshine stills,
- vapor from a hot boiling spring,
- a fissure that spits flammable gasses,
- the Devil stirring his tar kiln, and
- the Old Man of the Swamp smoking his pipe.
Like any good legend, it remains unsolved (despite a $10,000 reward), it’s nearly impossible to prove (or disprove), the details are incredibly inconsistent, at least one person died, and it ended with a massive earthquake.
I will be diving into this swampy legend over the course of three posts. Part 1 of this series covers the origins of the volcano, and its eventual “death.” In Part 2, I will describe some of the most well-known sightings, and introduce some of the brave souls who mounted expeditions into the swamp in search of answers…and also some of the drunk souls who inadvertently stumbled upon the fabled origin of the smoke. In Part 3, you will learn the truth. Every single version of the truth. It’s up to you to decide whether one version is more truthful than another.
The Birth and the Death
Some may doubt the story of the Wakulla Volcano, and some wholesale deny its existence, but there is ample evidence to suggest that North Floridians had, in fact, been able to see a prominent column of smoke for a period of at least a few decades, and perhaps a few centuries. Some go so far as to say that “fire and smoke was visible for 373 years of recorded history.”
Numerous sources claim that Seminole legends include references to the smoke. Diane Roberts’ Dream State notes that “Cabeza de Vaca had seen the smoke rising from it in 1529 when he was crashing around directionless in a bog,” and a 1956 Tallahassee Democrat article claims that “the smoke was first reported back in the days when Florida was controlled by the Spanish.”
Despite talk of its more ancient origins, the general consensus is that the column of smoke first appeared sometime around the Civil War, but even this school of thought is in disagreement. William Thomas Cash (discussed further in Part 3) claimed that the smoke didn’t appear until after the Civil War.
Conversely, other sources claim the smoke was apparently so prominent during the war that “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.”
Similarly, an 1880 article in Tallahassee Patriot stated that black smoke had been seen spewing for years from the impenetrable Wakulla swamp, and an 1883 piece in The Florida Dispatch claimed that the “column of smoke” had been seen by the oldest inhabitants of the county for the past 50 years.
It can be said with some certainty that the smoke wasn’t thought to come from a volcano until well after the Civil War. In 1882, Barton Jones, a journalist for Lippencott’s Magazine, was the first to refer to the smoke column as “the Wakulla Volcano.”
There does seem to be a general consensus regarding the cessation of the smoke column, as it has not been seen since August 31, 1886. This was the day of the great 7.0 magnitude Charleston, South Carolina earthquake which killed approximately 100 people and left the city in ruins.
Tremors were felt from Maine to Florida, and extended east to the Mississippi River. The quake caused church bells to ring in St. Augustine, Lake Jackson in Tallahassee to empty, and a dry well in Graceville to run with water.
The quake remains the second largest on record in the Southeast United States. With an epicenter near Summerville, South Carolina (near the middle of the North American Plate) this was an unusual location for a geological phenomenon that tends to occur near fault lines. Recent research suggests, though, that “this rare, intraplate earthquake occurred on an ancient, buried fault thought to be a remnant of the breakup of Pangea.”
It seems fitting, then, that something as geologically inconceivable as a Florida swamp volcano met its demise at the hands of an equally rare geological event that was rooted in the Mesozoic era. Tune in next time, as we take a look at some of the unique(ly foolish?) folks who tried their best to locate the volcano in the Wacissa Swamp.
(Super special shout-out to Jordan Engelke for providing her editing expertise on this series of posts. Check her out at JordanEngelke.com.)
“A Florida Mystery Solved.” New Orleans Daily Picayune, 9 Nov. 1883.
Boyles, Hallie. “The Wakulla Volcano—A Major Mystery.” Tallahassee Democrat, 15 March 1964.
Cash, W. T. “Letter from State Librarian W.T. Cash to State Geologist Herman Gunter.” 1 Nov. 1943, Tallahassee, Florida.
Chapman, Martin C. and Jacob N. Beale. On the Geologic Structure at the Epicenter of the 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, Earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 100 (3): 1010-1030. 2010.
Kennedy, Arthur. “Ever Heard the Tale of the ‘Volcano’ in Wakulla County?” Tallahassee Democrat, 9 Sept. 1956.
Kennedy, Arthur. “Expedition Searches for Lost ‘Volcano.’” Tallahassee Democrat, 29 Sept. 1956.
Kennedy, Arthur. “Expedition Fails to Find ‘Volcano.’” Tallahassee Democrat, 30 Sept. 1956.
Knoblock, Scott. “The Search for Truth Keeps Local Legends Alive.” Tallahassee Magazine, 21 Sept. 2017, http://www.tallahasseemagazine.com/the-search-for-truth-keeps-local-legends-alive/.
“Lurking in the Swamp: the Florida Volcano.” VolcanoCafe, 14 Jan. 2018, http://www.volcanocafe.org/lurking-in-the-swamp-the-florida-volcano/.
Norton, Charles Ledyard. A Handbook of Florida: with Forty-Nine Maps and Plans. Longmans, Green, 1892.
Page, Eddie. Images of America: Wakulla County. Arcadia Publishing, 2001.
Roberts, Diane. Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife. University Press of Florida, 2006.
State Library of Florida, Florida Map Collection. Accessed at Floridamemory.com.
“The ‘Florida Volcano.’” The Florida Dispatch, Vol. 12 No. 35, 24 Sept. 1883.
“The Volcano of the Florida Swamp.” Tallahassee Patriot, 12 June 1880.
“The Wakulla Swamp Volcano.” Florida Memory Blog, Florida Memory, 19 Nov. 2014, http://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2014/11/19/the-wakulla-swamp-volcano/.
United States Geological Survey. The National Map. https://viewer.nationalmap.gov/advanced-viewer/.
Wright, Michael Lowe. “The Mystery of the Wakulla Volcano,” 3 Dec. 2017, wakullavolcano.com/.
Wyatt, William. “The Wakulla Volcano.” Speech, 11 Apr. 1935, Tallahassee, Florida.
Yon, J. William. Geology of Jefferson County, Florida (FGS: Bulletin 48). Florida Geological Survey, 1966.
Zalzal, Kate S. Benchmarks: August 31, 1886: Magnitude-7 earthquake rocks Charleston, South Carolina. Earth Magazine. 31 Aug, 2017.