The Search for Truth Keeps Local Legends Alive
Mystery and Myth
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One dark night, the explorers were startled to see “an immense glare in the heavens, just in the direction of the volcano.” Determining it to be about five miles distant, they began hacking their way toward it. It proved to be a devilishly long trip. All night was consumed without the volcano getting any nearer. It was not until the group returned to Tallahassee that they discovered that what they had actually been pursuing was a large fire in the business district of Monticello, some 20 miles away!
Probably the most famous of all expeditions occurred in 1876. Financially underwritten by the New York Herald, it spent 10 fruitless days searching the swamp. One expedition member became locally notorious by falling out of a tall tree that he had climbed to get a better view of the smoke. The reporter accompanying the expedition allegedly became ill with fever and died before the group could return to Tallahassee. Once back in town, the party members refused to talk about their experiences, saying that a full account would appear in an upcoming issue of the New York Herald. Strangely enough, a careful perusal of the 1876 editions of the newspaper shows that it was never published.
Throughout the 1880s, the volcano sightings increased. The New York Times, quoting the Tallahassee Patriot of June 12, 1880, reported that a loud rumbling noise from the volcano was frequently heard in Wakulla County. The sound was so intense that it caused the sleeping family of a Mr. Frank Duggle to “get up and run outdoors, thinking another earthquake was at hand.” The volcanic discharge itself resembled “a large fire shooting its flaming tongue high up into the upper realms, frequently reflected back by passing clouds.”
Probably the biggest misconception about the Wakulla volcano is that it vanished after the 1886 Charleston earthquake. What actually seems to have happened is that the volcano went “dormant” (no sightings) for about four years, then reappeared. In 1890, J.C. Powell, in his classic book “The American Siberia,” noted that at night, under favorable atmospheric conditions, a “strange vivid illumination” lit up the sky to the southwest of his convict work camp in Jefferson County. He scoffed at the idea that it was an illicit moonshine still, but he could not explain its origin.
Finally, in 1891, the Jasper News reported that the smoke from the volcano was easily seen daily from the top of the Leon County Courthouse.
In 1893, the unthinkable finally happened — the volcano was proclaimed found! In an account that has a ring of authenticity to it, a phosphate prospector named Martin claimed to have discovered an “expanse of burning earth” deep within the swamp. The air was filled with smoke and the ground honeycombed with holes made by fire. A booming sound, like that of a cannon, was also frequently heard.
He found no “crater,” ash, scoria, pumice, or volcanic material of any type. Instead, he observed that the ground was covered with a layer of thick roots and “coarse vegetable fibers protected by a waterproof moss, like an immense peat bog.” It was this vegetable layer that had burned for untold years. After 1893, reports of the volcano’s smoke cease. In 1894, a large expedition financed by the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) combed the swamp but could find neither a crater nor even a wisp of the fabled smoke.
As the 20th century dawned, the volcano slowly slipped into history, a curiosity remembered by only a few old-timers who had been lucky enough to see the smoke from the “wonder of the Wakulla Swamp.”
Tales of Lost Treasure
Although lacking in precious metals and minerals, North Florida’s Gulf coast is nonetheless rich in stories of lost gold and pirate treasure. Her sparsely inhabited coastline was the haunt of various well-known pirates, including Blackbeard, Jean Lafitte, Billy Bowlegs and others. Even today, old-timers talk about secret finds, and occasionally an old gold coin will be found along the beach after a particularly severe storm.
On Bald Point, in Wakulla County, Billy Bowlegs supposedly buried three chests near an old palm tree. He fixed the location by carving special marks into the tree. Nearby is a small freshwater spring with marked stones encircling it. Near the mouth of the Ochlockonee River are buried several chests of pirate gold. Supposedly, after crossing the bridge over the river, a large Indian mound, on the left-hand side, marks the treasure site. In the 1920s, state highway workers allegedly dug up the area searching for the booty, but none was found.
Probably the most famous lost-treasure story involves the small town of St. Marks. A Spanish gunboat loaded with
$5 million in gold foundered off St. Marks. Fearful of pirates, the captain of the vessel buried the gold ashore. After doing so, he returned to his wrecked vessel, from which he and his crew were rescued by a ship bound for Peru. In the ensuing years, several members of the gunboat’s crew returned to the area to find where the treasure had been secreted. None, however, were successful.