In Part 1 of this series, we learned that traces of a volcano had been visible for at least a few decades, and perhaps much longer, and the this strange phenomenon was halted by an even stranger one: a the massive Charleston earthquake of 1886.
In Part 2, I will delve in the recorded sightings and some of the expeditions that set out in search for the source of the volcano. Stay tuned for Part 3: The Resolution!
Introduction to the Wakulla Volcano Blog Post Trifecta™
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.
Sightings, Hearings, and Ramblings
Evidence of the volcano most often appeared as a black, but sometimes white, column of smoke, and was typically, but not always, accompanied by a greenish, or whiteish aura of light. (Again, the details are wildly inconsistent.) The initial hypothesis was a house or a forest fire, but it appeared over and over again—some nights brighter than others.
A report published by the Tallahassee Patriot on June 12, 1880, and reprinted in New York Times on June 20, 1880 described the anomaly as “a large fire shooting its flaming tongue high up into the upper realms, frequently reflected back by passing clouds.”
The Patriot had reached out to people living southeast of Tallahassee, and all had apparently seen the same light coming from the same direction. They had described its source as:
“…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.”
Even in 1880, the smoke column had amassed a history that spanned back—at the very least—a few decades.
For some, the light was accompanied by a great “rumbling noise;” it was so loud for Wakulla resident Frank Duggle that he woke his family and rushed them outside thinking they were experiencing an earthquake.
Charles Ledyard Norton, author of The Handbook of Florida was skeptical when he wrote on the subject in 1892. He points out inconsistencies in the details of local stories, and found some informants who claimed the smoke simply did not exist. But in a detailed footnote, he recounted that smoke from the alleged volcano was pointed out to him on several successive days, coming from the same compass bearing:
“The smoke in favorable weather was always visible in the same place, rolling up in strong volume, usually dense and dark like the smoke from a furnace chimney. The author was assured by a Northern gentleman, long resident in Tallahassee, that it was often lighted with a faint glow at night. It is believed by many to be vapor from a boiling spring, possibly intermingled with inflammable gas that occasionally ignites.”
Expeditions and Accidental Encounters
In 1875, a group sailed from St. Marks with ample “liquids other than water” stored on the ship, according to the captain’s journals. The group headed to the mouth of the Pinhook River and found “a town with chimneys and gable ends of houses,” which, upon further inspection, turned out to be no more than large rocks. They did, however, venture into the swamp to discover a large rock that appeared to be over 100 feet tall, and subsequently decided it was the “inverted cone” of a volcano.
Major newspapers also had a habit of sending reporters to North Florida in search of the elusive volcano. In the 1876, a reporter from the offices of the New York Herald Tribune formed a search party with three guides to “get to the bottom” of the volcano story. After fighting the swamp for three days, one of the guides fell out of a tree and the party was forced to turn back. The reporter caught a fever and died on the way back to Tallahassee.
Two later attempts guided by Tallahassee man J. H. Staley in 1891 were almost equally doomed. On the first trek, which included the aforementioned Charles Ledyard Norton, Staley nearly lost his life. The second consisted of over two weeks of hacking through the dense swamp and battling snakes, mosquitoes, and other insects, still to no success.
Tallahassee locals James N. Kirkland and Judge A.L. Porter claim that an eruption had occurred, and that they had found the smoldering crater on a deer hunting trip in the 1920s. In a letter from Judge Porter, he contends that he and Kirkland are “the only two living people who have seen the crater of the extinct Wakulla Volcano.”
On their hunt, the two men found a dishpan-sized hole near a distinct chain of rocks, which appeared to be burned, that extended as far down as they could see. The Judge did not claim to have advanced geological knowledge, and his explanation is merely his “layman’s opinion:”
“the rock forming the crater was not igneous but appeared to be a sedimentary rock where natural gas found its way to the surface and was set afire by lightning or a woods fire and continued to burn for many years until the gas pocket was all exhausted.”
The two men even provided a general location for their proposed volcano: either Section 5 or 6, Township 4 south, Range 3 east in Jefferson County, about a mile east of the Wakulla County line.
Kirkland led another expedition in 1956 to relocate the site he found some 15-20 years prior. As the advisor of Explorer Post 100, he led Explorer Scouts into the swamp, and located the chain of rocks where he and Porter found the hole the first time around. The topography had changed somewhat, and the group failed to locate the fissure this time. All was not lost though, as the scouts “killed a rattlesnake, stumbled across a friendly five and one-half foot snake and observed an alligator nest containing about 40 eggs.”
During 1932 and 1933, William Wyatt ventured into the swamp with Fred Wimpee in search of the smoke’s source. He found what he described as:
“sinks with piles of rock close by that seemed to have been blown out of them, the rocks being different to the kind usually found on the surface, for the edges were rounded off as though they had been subjected to great heat at some time or other. There were mounds or piles of rock as high as 15 feet that looked as though they had been blown or pushed out of the earth by some gigantic hand, with small rocks close by, that again looked as though they had been melted.”
Perhaps this is the same distinctive chain of rocks that Kirkland and Porter stumbled upon. “We were crazy!” recalled Wyatt:
“We started out in a Model T Ford with a machete, a hand ax, a flashlight and a small bag of sandwiches. I remember it was about dawn on Saturday. We planned to get back that night but we were lucky to get back late Sunday night. We followed directions left by a Chicago newspaperman who had advanced near the column of smoke before he became exhausted and had to turn back. He had left slats nailed to a tall pine tree which he climbed to get his bearings. We found the tree and some of the pieces of wood were still nailed to the tree.”
So while there are many who have attempted to find the volcano site–and at least one who lost their life–there are few who definitively claim to have actually found the source of the smoke column. However, they observed neither smoke nor any active volcanic activity at the site. Just large rocks, some of which appeared to be “inverted cones,” others arranged in distinctive chains that explorers claimed were the result of volcanic activity.
Check in next week for the third and final installment of the Wakulla Volcano series to find out if these folks were hot on the trail of an elusive volcano, or something else entirely.
(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/.
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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.