Logo The Fabulist


  • By Dan Egan
  • Issue 18
  • On BeautyJanuary 2017

 The Great Black Swamp was once called the “most forsaken, desolate and inhospitable” patch of wilderness in the United States. But “patch” is probably the wrong word. It was five times the size of all New York City. Beneath its still waters was a quicksand-like black mud that sat atop an impervious bed of clay. From the depths of this glacier-carved quagmire sprouted forests of ash, sycamore, and elm tall and dense enough to block out the summer sun. Maple, hickory, and oak towered in the drier zones, and where the canopies of leaves gave way, there burst tangles of grasses so tightly woven they could stop an army in its tracks. While settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains exploded across the middle of the North American continent in the early nineteenth century, this morass on the western end of Lake Erie remained largely unsettled—if not impassable.

On a map, it had the jagged borders of a worrisome mole. On the ground, it teemed with bears, big cats, wolves and wolverines, rats and poisonous water snakes. In the dank air that hung above the bathtub-flat water swarmed hordes of biting flies big as bumblebees and malarial mosquitoes that so routinely brought the fatal “shakes” to the few who settled on the swamp’s edge in the first decades of the nineteenth century that the survivors coined this grim verse:

There is a funeral every day, without hearse or pall

they tuck them in the ground with breeches, coat and all.

The Great Black Swamp was such a geographical cipher that Native Americans at war with the United States in the late 1700s used it as a redoubt, confident the tender-footed soldiers chasing them had no interest or ability to navigate their way in, let alone out.

The swamp sat in the middle of the migration route for immigrants streaming from the East Coast toward the fertile soils and lush forests of Michigan. The first road in, built in the 1820s, was soon abandoned as a useless muddy mess. A later road, built on a latticework of logs, was still so sloppy that the overland trip between Cleveland and Detroit could only be made in winter when it was frozen. This is one man’s 1838 account of his trip across the abyss:

… we were compelled to witness trouble and its emblems every step of the way. Every few rods someone may be seen prying out a piece of wreck of some wagon or other vehicle.

Settlers at the edge of the swamp realized that the vast wasteland could be drained  into nearby rivers, including the Maumee that flows through what is today downtown Toledo, Ohio. Farmers chasing cheap, fertile land soon poured into the swamp with shovels and picks to construct an expansive network of ditches and subterranean clay pipes, called drain tiles, that would ultimately bleed the swamp dry. The Buckeye Traction Ditcher, a steam-driven contraption, chitty-chitty-bang-banged through the swamp, carving trenches for drain tile at such a pace that eventually 15,000 miles of manmade water channels would lace the former swamplands.

When the swamp was no more, some of the richest soils on the continent remained. The cache of nutrients built up over thousands of years of life, death, and decay had never been given a chance to drain away. Today the Maumee River Basin is among the most intensively farmed regions on the planet. The watershed sprawls across 4 million acres, about 3 million of which is cropland. If you drive across these old swamplands, where once sturgeon darted, snakes slithered, and bugs hummed, you will encounter nothing but endless miles of zipper-straight rows of corn.

Dan Egan, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This essay is adapted from his book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, forthcoming from W. W. Norton in March 2017. The banks of the Maumee River, near Toledo, Ohio, late 1800s. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division