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: the massive Charleston earthquake of 1886.
Part 2 explored the recorded sightings, expeditions, and people behind such ill-fated treks. In the finale, I will describe the many conflicting explanations of Florida’s most mysterious column of smoke.
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.
Explanations and Creative Misconceptions
On November 9, 1883, the New Orleans Daily Picayune declared “A Florida Mystery Solved” after a group of men claimed to have discovered the source of the smoke: a new steam mill and cotton gin. This is likely not the case, as the mill was “new” in 1883, and the smoke column had already been observed for at least a few decades.
William Thomas Cash, teacher, author, State Representative, State Senator, and Florida’s first State Librarian, was another skeptic, but even he sought a more science-based explanation for smoke that he witnessed.
In a November 1, 1943 letter to State Geologist Herman Gunter, Cash notes that the volcano seems to have appeared after the Civil War (contradicting many other reports and anecdotes). Cash offers up this explanation to Gunter, with a request for further observation and investigation:
“The “volcano,” I believe, was caused by a hillock of burning peat, which, as you are aware, is a mineral constituent of more than one Florida swamp and is particularly plentiful in the Everglades. This hillock of peat caught fire during one of those burnoffs which have often taken place in our swamps in extremely dry weather. When the swamp fire had exhausted itself the slow-burning peat continued to burn and the fire having eaten far into and even under the hillock continued until the hillock was consumed. Floods probably often quenched all parts of the fire that had not eaten under the hillock, or swamp knoll. To support this theory Everglades fires have more than once burned deep holes in the peat soil of that region.”
Interestingly, Cash recalls that his mother had spoken of seeing the smoke and flame of the volcano from Waukeenah during 1896 and 1870, and that W. P. Strickland, a member of the Florida House of Representatives from Taylor County, spoke of seeing it in 1899. Cash notes that these dates come from memory and may not be completely accurate, but they suggest that the smoke column was indeed visible after the Charleston earthquake of 1886.
Wyatt, discussed above as a leader of a few expeditions in search of the smoke’s source, is quick to note that evidence in support of a volcano is circumstantial at best, but he provides another explanation. According to Wyatt, limestone that erodes to form large cavities in the earth (sinkholes) eventually swallow trees, shrubs, and other decaying debris. Then something—presumably lightning—sets the “vast storehouse of combustible material afire, and as in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, the fire continues eating away at the vitals of the earth until it breaks through the surface at some weak point, the underground fire feeding the visible smoke column for decades.”
In an attempt to put the volcano theory to rest, the University of Florida geologists took the official position that volcanic activity has not occurred in Florida. This was most likely in response to inquiries after a 1949 exploration for oil in the area revealed material of volcanic origin, but only at a depth of 7,500 feet.
The Florida Geological Survey (FGS) publication Geology of Jefferson County, Florida (Bulletin 48) confirms that volcanic rocks are present in Jefferson County, but indeed lie below 7000 feet of sand, clay, and limestone, forming what is referred to as volcanic diabase sill or dikes. The materials show no evidence of volcanic activity since the formation of these sills millions of years ago. The bulletin further describes that the large outcrops of rock are simply silicified limestone residue of the Suwannee Limestone, and are not related to volcanic activity.
Wilfred Neil, writing for Florida Wildlife, hypothesizes that the smoke was the result of peat fires that ceased following their subducting into sinkholes as a result of the Charleston Earthquake. This is, by far, the most reasonable explanation, and very similar to that provided to State Geologist Gunter by W. T. Cash in 1943. However, a peat fire burning in the same location for a period of at least a few decades, and at most a few centuries, still seems exceedingly rare.
Despite the fact that the legend of the Wakulla Volcano is neither as contentious nor as well-known as it once was, there are still those who seek to understand the source of the mysterious column of smoke.
In the Fall 1997, three “investigators of unexplained phenomena” went into the Wacissa swamp in search of the volcano. They followed a hand-drawn map from a 74-year-old Wakulla man who claimed to find the crater while hunting during the 1930s. The author of this map may have been Wyatt, as he made his expeditions in the 1930s, but not on a hunting trip. That was Kirkland and Porter, but in the 1920s. Porter died in 1992.
The researchers found a high point scattered with rocks (consistent with previous sightings, but also consistent with any dry spot in the entire Wacissa swamp). Apparently, as some of these rocks were quite large, weighing over an estimated hundred pounds, “no explanation could be found for these rocks being thrown about the landscape,” and no fissure, crater, or hole was located. What the “researchers” failed to consider, however, was that large outcrops of limestone are very common in this region, and are not volcanic in origin. This was common knowledge well before 1997.
Reasonable or not, it’s safe to assume that the Wacissa Swamp of Wakulla (or Jefferson?) County will not reveal its secrets any time soon.
(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.