VOLCANOES AND THE WAKULLA SWAMP
Somewhere to the southeast of Tallahassee , obviously in the heart of the Wakulla Swamp, strange things were occuring. Folks talked about it and if you were eavesdropping you'd hear words like "ash", "pumice", "smoke", and "volcanoes" uttered. Almost daily, year after year, this huge column of smoke rose up in the same location, intriguing, and frightening residents of our fair city. Tons of theories as to the origin of the smoke abounded. Some believed it was a true volcano, some probably a moonshine still, or a camp of renegade Indians. Maybe it was something like the famous Devil's Tar Pit filled with legions of lost souls.
During the 1870's and 1880's many intrepid souls attemped to solve the smoky mystery. All returned from their ventures weary, upset, and defeated. One New York newspaper referred to it as "one of the greatest mysteries of our century."
Florida has always been of the cutting edge of different. Myths, tall tales, legends, searches for lost gold, sunken cities, ghost appearances, sea monsters, and so many other intriguing stories have kept us entertained and amused for centuries.
There are two accounts of the famous volcano within the Wakulla Swamp. The conventional one, usually found in articles and books written by non-native authors, tells the story that from our earliest days as a land mass, probably even back while deSoto was invading our terrain, there has been a large column of smoke emanating from the Wakulla Swamp, about 30 miles southeast of Tallahassee. This smoke could be seen from any high elevation in or near our town. Lots of expeditions sought the source of the smoke to no avail. A certain northern newspaper, usually named as the New York Herald, even offered the sum of $10,000 to anyone who could solve the mystery. The reward was never collected.
In 1886, a really big earthquake rocked the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Church bells in St. Augustine set to ringing, and all the water in Lake Jackson suddenly vanished. Only very minor structural damage occured in Tallahassee. But all the news about the earthquake, and what it triggered, could not compete with what happened to our volcano. It virtually disappeared!!! It was probably a victim of underground commotions. The smoke was never again seen rising over the north Florida landscape. But, read on, there's more.
Current research through period newspapers, provides a considerably different story. Accounts talked about the smoke being sighted as far back as the 1820's, or even back to deSoto's arrival, are basically not supported through persual of newspapers. A shorter lifespan from about 1875 to 1893 seems to be far more factual.
In 1875 a group sailed from St. Marks, east along the Gulf Coast to the mouth of the Pinhook River. This would be about 10 miles east of the lighthouse. Nearing the mouth of the river, people were surprised to see a town with chimneys and "gable ends of houses" It soon proved to be a mirage with the large rocks of Red Fish Bar supplying the chimneys. According to the journal kept by the expedition leader,liquids other than water were stored aboard the ship. Traveling up the Pinhook the group plunged into the dense swamp. They discovered an immense rock that appeared to be about 100 ft. high. They thought it was an "inverted cone" and considered it to be the cone of an extinct volcano
This same group had another interesting expierence. One dark night they were startled to see an immense glare in the heavens in the direction of the volcano. They though it was probably no more than 5 miles distant, so they began hacking their way toward it. All night was consumed without the volcano getting any nearer. When they returned to Tallahassee with their stories, they learned that what they thought was the volcano, was actually a very large fire in the business district of Monticello, about 20 miles away.
In 1876, an expedition financially underwritten by the New York Herald, spent 10 miserable days in the swamp searching for the volcano. The reporter accompanying them, became ill and died before the group could return to town.
During the 1880's, the volcano sightings increased. People reported hearing rumblings, and reported that the volcanic discharge resembles "a large fire shooting its flaming tongue high up into the upper realms."
A big misconception about the Wakulla volcano is that it vanished after the 1886 Charleston earthquake. What probably happened is that the volcano went dormant, with no sightings for about four years. Then it reappeared. In 1891, the Jasper News reported that the smoke from the volcano was easily seen daily from the top of the Leon County Courthouse.
And, in 1893 a phosphate prospector claimed to have found the volcano. He located an "expanse of burning earth" deep withing the swamp. The air was filled with smoke. The ground was honeycombed with holes made by fire. He reported hearing a booming sound, like that of a canon. He found no crater, ash, pumice or volcanic material of any type. He reported that the ground was covered with a thick layer of roots and other vegetaation, 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. The Florida Times Union financed a large expedition that combed the swamp, but could find neither a crater or a wisp of the fabled smoke. The volcano and its stories have slipped away into history. It is remembered by only a few old-timers. A tour group from Monticello, Keystone Tours, has led folks out into the swamp to where they believe the volcano was active. It is off the Aucilla area, where you traverse a cypress swamp, with all the knees, and climb up and down over limestone projections to arrive at the supposed site. It is a fun thing to try.