Just about 30 miles from the bustling city of Tallahassee, Florida, and around 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, near the town of Wakulla, lies a sprawling expanse of deep swamp called the Wacissa Swamp, also known as the Wakulla Swamp, which is intersected by the Wacissa River. It is a lush, wild, somewhat forbidding land full of alligators lurking in murky waters, clouds of mosquitos, snakes, hot sulphur belching springs, and at times nearly impenetrable undergrowth, a place that manages to retain the remote quality of its pristine, untamed wilderness despite its proximity to civilization. The swamp is also home to a curious historical mystery that has become entwined with local lore and legends, and which remains unsolved.
When Spanish explorers first came to Florida’s shores in the 1500s, they were met with the intimidating sight of this vast tangle of swampland, and from somewhere out in its midst of this carpet of green spewed forth a massive plume of thick smoke that changed color day to day ranging from an ominous black to a lighter white or even bluish color, and the Native Seminole people had stories of this mysterious smoke going back generations. The amount of smoke in this column was far beyond the scope of any manmade campfire or chimney, and was sometimes so potent that it could be seen from far out in the Gulf and up to 20 miles away. It was quite the perplexing oddity at the time, but the uncharted wilderness which ensconced it was so inhospitable and uninviting that no one made any attempts to try and discern the source of the mysterious smoke, and what would go on to be called the “Wakulla Volcano” was sort of forgotten.
It was not until settlers began trickling into the region in the early 1800s that the phenomena would gain notoriety once more, still belching out its twisting column of smoke after centuries. The oddity was a cause of much talk, and people would often climb up to high places in order to watch the strange display, which seemed to originate from somewhere in what is now the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. Speculation over the coming decades on what was causing the plume ranged from pirate dens, to a runaway slave camp, to campfires, to Civil War deserters, moonshiners, a boiling spring or geyser, or more supernatural explanations such as that it was the Devil himself, but no one really had a clue. Making it all even more inexplicable was that on some occasions there was witnessed to be an eerie glow that would emanate from around where the source of the smoke should be, as well as mysterious deep rumbling noises and even tremors that would sometimes reverberate through the earth.
By the 1860s the oddity was reported on in various news outlets, and speculation increasingly leaned towards the explanation that there was an actual active volcano out there in the swamp. Considering all of the attention that the “Wakulla Volcano” was gaining, some intrepid adventurous types began launching expeditions into the gloomy, alligator infested swamp in order to try and find the origin of the smoke once and for all, and a newspaper went on to offer a hefty reward for anyone who found it, but the rewards remained unclaimed and the volcano remained a specter. One of the most well-known of these expeditions penetrated into the forbidding swamp in 1875, travelling up the Pinhook River. The expedition would come back claiming to have found what appeared to be the cone of an extinct volcano. In 1876 there was another well-known expedition launched, this time sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. This particular quest for the volcano would prove to be disastrous, with one member injured from falling out of a tree he had climbed to try and get a better view of the smoke, and another dying of disease. The doomed expedition spent 10 days trouncing about the swamp without finding even a single trace of anything volcanic in nature.
In the meantime, the supposed volcano kept defiantly shooting up its smoke, and there was even one spectacular report from a witness named Frank Duggle claiming that he had seen “a large fire shooting its flaming tongue high up into the upper realms, frequently reflected back by passing clouds.” Such volcano sightings steadily came in right up until August of 1886, when a powerful earthquake rattled the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and was strong enough to give parts of Florida and Tallahassee a jolt as well. After this, the plume of smoke stopped for several years, but it doesn’t seem to have been done just yet.
After a period of nothing there were many who proclaimed the mysterious volcano to be dead, speculating that the earthquake had done something to stop it. However, beginning from 1890 there were sporadic reports that seem to show that the Wakulla Volcano had merely taken a vacation. Some newspaper reports of the era tell of a strange glow seen in the sky of the area and of the smoke continuing to send tendrils up into the sky. There was even one report in 1893 of a phosphate prospector who claimed to have come across a scorched wasteland of smoking, heat blasted and pock marked earth out in the swamp, which he discovered had been laid over by a vast peat bog or mat of vegetation that seemed to be smoldering with fire for reasons unknown. This was enough to get another expedition launched by the Florida Times-Union the following year, but they found no sign of any volcano, burning earth, or even smoke. After this, sightings once again dropped off, and the Wakulla Volcano sort of faded into history.
While the phenomenon of the Wakulla Volcano has mostly been forgotten, its mystery has managed to retain a pulse of life nevertheless, with various strange accounts into the 1930s, 40s, and beyond of hikers or locals coming across smoldering craters in the earth, scorched vegetation, smoke rising from unusual rock formations, and in one report of “scattered rocks that looked like they had been burnt by extreme heat.” There was also a strange incident in 1949, which construction teams working on highway 98 came across a great hole in the earth that apparently required 600 tons of rock to fill, and in the 1950s an expedition into the swamp carried out by the Florida Geological Survey found boulders strewn about in the swamp that looked “like they had been thrown out of the earth.”
However, recent geological knowledge of the area has shown that the region is not in any way volcanic, and that as far as we know there should never have been a volcano there at all, further deepening the mystery and leaving us to wonder just what the Wakulla Volcano, sighted for centuries, could possibly be. One idea is that it could have been caused by occasional conflagrations of peat bogs, but while this is known to happen in nature and could explain the glow and smoke, it is exceedingly rare, and it does not seem that any such fire would burn long enough and in the same area to explain the phenomenon witnessed. There are still people trying to find answers to the mystery. In as recently as 1997 researchers Jim Whitman, Bill and Todd Meyers, of the group UNX-Research, went out to search for the legendary volcano and team member Meyers would say of what they found:
We hiked about two miles from the river to a high ridge that ran through a hammock. There was a high point on this ridge with rocks strewn everywhere. The rocks were overgrown with vegetation, but some were pretty large, at least a hundred pounds. Some of the smaller ones looked like they had been burned but we couldn’t tell if it was because of a natural swamp fire or something else. We didn’t find anything like a crater or anything that looked like lava material, and most of the rocks were plain ol’ limestone or flint.
Despite all of the speculation and strange discoveries made in the thick wilderness that is Wacissa Swamp, the odd plume of smoke has not been seen to the dramatic effect that was originally reported, and the existence of the Wakulla Volcano has attained a sort of almost mythical status. What was seen out there in that wild place and what happened to it? Was this a volcano, some other geological phenomenon, or something else altogether? Did such a thing ever really exist at all? Considering that things seem have gone dormant in modern times we are left to ponder these questions, and there is a very real possibility that the secrets to this intriguing historical mystery will always remain buried in out there in the muck of the swamp.