The Search for Truth Keeps Local Legends Alive
Mystery and Myth
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It was a time of conjecture and even mystery. Strange words like “scoria,” “ash,” “pumice” and even “volcano” seemed to hang on every lip. All eyes strained toward the southeast where, some 30 miles distant from Tallahassee, in the heart of the great Wakulla Swamp, a column of dense smoke rose almost daily, year after year, never varying in its location. Numerous theories as to the origin of the smoke abounded: a “lost” volcano, a moonshine still, a camp of renegade Seminole Indians, even perhaps the Devil’s Tar Pit, replete with its legion of lost souls. During the 1870s and 1880s, numerous expeditions were launched to solve the smoky enigma, but all returned disgruntled, defeated. It was, as one New York newspaper aptly put it, “one of the greatest mysteries of our century.”
Following is a series of legends that have long puzzled both citizens and historian alike and — who knows? — some of them could actually be true!
The Wakulla Volcano
There are actually two accounts of the famous volcano of the Wakulla Swamp: the conventional one, as depicted in the articles and books of various authors and reporters (usually not native Floridians), and a somewhat different one gleaned from the local literature (especially newspapers) of the day. The conventional story runs something like this: From the earliest days of Florida’s settlement, perhaps even going back to deSoto’s invasion of the state in 1539, there has been seen from any high elevation in or near Tallahassee a large column of smoke emanating from the Wakulla Swamp some 30 miles southeast of the city.
Various expeditions sought the source of the smoke but all of them failed, their members returning exhausted and ill from yellow fever, malaria and even snake bites. A certain northern newspaper (usually cited as the New York Herald) even offered the sum of $10,000 to anyone who could solve the mystery — a reward that was never collected.
In 1886, a major earthquake rocked the city of Charleston, South Carolina. In Florida, church bells in St. Augustine were set to ringing and the water in Lake Jackson suddenly vanished. Only minor structural damage occurred in Tallahassee itself, but this was nothing compared with what happened to the volcano: It disappeared! No doubt a hapless victim of “subterranean commotions,” its smoky plume was never again seen rising over the North Florida landscape. Recent research, especially in period newspapers, provides, however, a considerably different story.
Accounts that the volcano smoke was sighted as far back as the 1820s, or even back to deSoto’s arrival, seem insupportable. Instead, a shorter lifespan from about 1875 to 1893 appears far more likely. Concerning the numerous attempts to locate the volcano, however, there can be no question. In 1875, an expedition sailed from St. Marks, eastward along the Gulf coast to the mouth of the Pinhook River (about 10 miles east of the St. Marks lighthouse). Nearing the mouth of the river, the members were surprised to see a town with chimneys and “gable ends of houses.” It soon proved, however, to be a “mirage,” with the large rocks of “Red Fish Dar” supplying the “chimneys.” Suggestively, the expedition leader mentions that in addition to the “cool water” stored aboard, “other fluids” were available to party members.
Traveling up the Pinhook River, the expedition plunged into the dense swamp. They soon discovered an “immense rock rising to the height of 100 feet from its base.” It appeared to be an “inverted cone” and was “undoubtedly the cone of an extinct volcano.” Fragments of the rock were reported to be light like pumice, and an abundance of “scoria” and “ashes” were found near the scene of the “volcanic disturbance.” The most amazing incident of the expedition was, however, also a rather amusing one.