What comes to mind when someone utters the name, “Great Dismal Swamp”? John Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond,” perhaps, which in modern English means “Swamp of Despair”? Or Bastian’s Bux’s “Swamp of Sadness”?
The history of the Great Dismal Swamp is equally rich and colorful despite the mosquitoes and snakes that live there. It was a home and refuge to generations of Indigenous and Black communities, a way to hide from those who would enslave them.
The Great Dismal Swamp was originally much larger, part of a natural area listed in land records as simply the Great Dismal. At that time, close to 300 years ago, it was more than a million acres in size, with part of it laying as far east as Back Bay in present-day Virginia Beach, Va. Now protected, it is known as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and is more than 110,000 acres covering parts of Suffolk and Chesapeake in Virginia as well as northeastern North Carolina.
Though it will take some time, an exciting new project is in the works for the GDS. The city of Suffolk has requested assistance to acquire land adjacent to the swamp with the intent to create a city park. Additionally, a contact station, environmental education facility and wetland restoration area are planned. The entire trailhead project will create a strong connection and access point between downtown Suffolk and the refuge.
The plan was first proposed 15 years ago and is only now getting underway with a $50,000 grant from Dominion Energy. The grant purchased the land and materials needed for the enhancement. Chris Lowie, who heads the project, said it will make the GDS more visible and accessible for both frequent visitors and first timers.
Lowie explained that there are actually two projects contained within the grant. Besides creating the park, adding signage and moving the trailhead closer to White Marsh Road will make the Jericho Trail more accessible.
“The Suffolk Project will build the park adjacent to the GDS. My connection is with the Jericho Lane Trailhead Enhancement Project,” he explained. “We have a trailhead, but it’s underutilized. We want it to be a greater asset to the city of Suffolk and tourists, too. The Jericho Lane entrance to the pavilion is 2 miles down and not visible, so we are going to move what we have. There will be a new parking lot, plenty of room for cars and buses, a new pavilion and a visitor/educational center — everything together in one place. In this way, visitors can stop at one location and get the information they need, then move on to other spots in the refuge — with no more driving here and there.”
Lowie explained that the project has actually been talked about for 20 years.
“We were talking about it, and at one point this man came over to me and said he’d been part of these kinds of conversations when the plan was originally discussed. ‘You got a lot to do here,’ he said. I started walking around and realized we were close to the urban community, within walking distance of an elementary and middle school, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We started five years ago and acquired our first piece of land, 8 acres, all agricultural: That wasn’t going to be enough, so we went to parks and recreation and asked if they were interested in making this greater. And they were.”
He is pleased about the progress. “We’re taking baby steps. We’ll get there. Our second big success is the Dominion Energy Grant: $50,000 is a steppingstone, though. I’m going to need about $1.3 million to buy all the land we want.
Everyone is a willing seller, Lowie noted. “We aren’t evicting anyone from their property. The landowners are all on board. They love the swamp and want to see good things for the city. We’re putting a package together that will go out to potential vendors and we’re actually looking at building a sort of rustic amphitheater, something that will blend in and look natural, with seating and a slightly elevated stage. We want to surround this with interpretive kiosks to provide information about the swamp, the natural resources and the cultural history of the place.”
The goal for completion is the end of March 2023. The city park closed in August on its property, that part of the plan will be more in the 2025 timeline.
The National Environmental Policy Act is a law that analyzes impacts and aspects because, when asking people to commit to fundraising and giving donations, it’s important that they feel heard.
Lowie said, “If you’re going spend major dollars, it requires public analysis and comments. We did that, and we addressed the comments about the human and natural world, and we have to go back out: It has been 16 years since this began, and landscapes change. We have to revisit the concept of trails and building a building. We hope that will happen this fall.”
Great projects cannot happen without great partners, and Lowie said they have some of the best.
“We have the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Friends of the GDSNWR. We have the city of Suffolk Parks and Recreation department, and we have the Izaak Walton League — a national organization that protects plants, water and soil. They were instrumental in establishing the Refuge. And the partners keep coming! We also have the Nature Conservancy, and it looks as if we’ll have more coming from Dominion at some point. Local landfill people may be coming to the table, too.”
Landowners are excited to be part of the transformation too. “One of the best things was a local church. They’ve owned a piece of property for about 30 years, were going to build on it and never did. We asked if they might be interested in selling it to us. They are ecstatic about this project, and our buying the property actually helps them.”
A project such as the one that will be called Suffolk Park takes more than a year to complete. In the meantime, several other funding sources have already been found, including a $200,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
There’s even more, much more, planned for Suffolk. In March 2022, the Suffolk Parks and Trails Alliance began fundraising to replace the KidsZone Playground at Lake Meade Park. The inclusive playground for differently abled children was installed three years ago, and the older pieces are reaching the end of their safe, useful life. The members of the Alliance decided to take on the replacement as their first project; they have set a goal to raise $300,000, which the city will match in their capital budget. Many of the original fundraising group are part of the new committee.
Pete Acker, district biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, explained that the department’s goals are to connect people and wildlife.
“We encourage other agencies and landowners to do that, and to promote that for others. Municipalities do reach out to help accomplish our goals. And the Great Dismal Swamp offers public access, so we support them however possible. We own wildlife management areas, 200,000 acres, for public enjoyment and experiencing nature — primarily hunting and fishing — but we also do habitat management, and we do everything we can to provide the best experiences for the public.” Whether a person is looking at the Great Dismal Swamp in its current state, seeing the plans for the future or looking into helping raise funds for playground equipment, Sussex is on the move. The results promise to be anything but dismal.