The Okefenokee Swamp currently covers roughly 700 square miles (1127 km), although it would have once been larger as development near its edges, logging, and attempts to drain it have caused it to shrink in size in the modern era. I learned as a child growing up just south of the Okefenokee that the word okefenokee was of Creek/Seminole origin and meant “land of the trembling earth.” In many ways this makes sense to speakers of English who have ever attempted to walk across or through a swampy area; however, it seems that explanation may actually be a folk etymology loosely based on the Seminole words for water (oka) and shaking (fenoke).
Owing to the nature of the swamp, it was both difficult to access and—for those willing and able—a good place to hide. Some of the swamp’s first human inhabitants were said to be Yamasees who retreated to the swamp in order to hide from their enemies, the Seminoles. In later years, the Seminoles themselves would retreat to the swamp, seeking refuge from encroaching white settlers. Prior to the Civil War, the swamp was reported to serve as a refuge for escaped slaves as well. As white homesteaders began to advance into the swampland in the early 1800’s, Seminoles led by Chief Billy Bowlegs led numerous raids against them until finally being driven into Florida by General Charles Floyd. Visitors to the swamp will note that the two largest islands are named Billy’s Island and Floyd’s Island after the two.
Both the swamp itself and the surrounding areas had once been thick with longleaf pines, slow-growing trees native to the area, which can take up to 150 years to reach maturity. In the 1880’s, the swamp was essentially encircled on all sides by railway lines. This enabled loggers an easy way of transporting logs to market, and by the turn of the twentieth century the easily accessible—or in other words, dry—lands bordering the swamp had been denuded of longleaf pine. Once the easy to access longleaf pines surrounding the swamp were gone, timber-profiteers looked for ways to access the cypress trees growing within the swamp. The first attempts were made by the Suwannee Canal Company in the 1890’s, which tried first to drain the swamp and later tried to use steamboats to access and remove timber. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
In 1901 the bulk of the swampland itself was purchased by Charles Hebard and his sons, owners of the Hebard Lumber Company, and they approached cypress logging in the Okefenokee in a different way. They constructed a cypress mill on the northern edge of Waycross, Georgia (in an area of the town which to this day is known as Hebardville), a rail line connecting the swamp to their mill, and a network of rails through the swamp. Rail lines were constructed in order to bring equipment in and lumber out, and were removed/rerouted once an area of swampland had been logged. Logging continued in the swamp until the late 1920’s, when the vast majority of the cypress had been culled. In 1937 the swampland owned by the Hebard Lumber Company was sold to the United States government in order to create what is now the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which can currently be accessed by the public through five main entrance points.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Main Entrance (Suwannee Canal Recreation Area)
Located just outside of Folkston, Georgia, this is probably the most well-known modern-day entrance to the swamp. In the 1890’s, in an effort to access the lumber and other resources of the swamp, an attempt was made to drain it. The plan was to construct a canal connecting the swamp to the nearby St. Mary’s River, disregarding the fact that what slow water movement there was in the swamp led in nearly the opposite direction towards the Suwannee River. A myriad of problems beset the canal project. Attempts to drain the swamp were finally abandoned in 1899, with the canal a mere 11.5 miles. Today, the canal serves as the main access point to the swamp for those in canoes, kayaks, or motorboats, all of which can be rented at this location. For those more adventurous, primitive camping platforms are located on canoe/kayak trails throughout the park. For those not quite so adventurous, guided boat tours into the swamp are offered. Additionally, visitors can tour the Chesser Island Homestead, where the Chesser family settled in the late 1800’s, as well as hike several trails and boardwalks.
Located roughly thirteen miles north of Folkston is the Kingfisher Landing entrance. Here visitors can view the remains of a logging rail spur and rail “skidder” (a rail-mounted vehicle used for moving recently felled logs), as well as launch canoes, kayaks, and motor boats. No staff or concessions are located at this entrance.
Okefenokee Swamp Park
Seven miles south of the town of Waycross, Georgia, is the northernmost and only privately-owned entrance to the Okefenokee. The Okefenokee Swamp Park has been open since 1946, and it offers access to the headwaters of the Suwannee River, although it is not officially connected to the canoe trails of the National Wildlife Refuge. The general admission fee enables visitors to hike both a trail and a boardwalk, view the park’s live snake and alligator exhibits and shows, check out multiple swamp history exhibits, and ride their miniature railroad through part of the swamp and to a recreation pioneer island. Boat tours are available for an extra fee.
Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area
Located nine miles northeast of the community of Fargo, the Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area is the westernmost access point to the Okefenokee. The unique ecosystem of the Okefenokee relies on fire. This is especially true for the longleaf pine which requires periodic fires to stimulate its growth cycle. However, this was not known until fairly recently. Following a period of drought in the mid-1950’s, a massive fire swept through the swamp. Not realizing that fire was an essential part of the swamp ecosystem, scientists believed that keeping the swamp flooded during periods of drought could serve to prevent future fires.
A five-mile long earthen dam with a concrete and steel gate in the center was constructed where the Suwannee River flowed out from the park’s western border. Needless to say, not only was the scientific rationale behind the dam’s construction proven false, but closing the gates in the dam merely prevented a tiny fraction of the swamp’s outflow. Today the dam’s gates remain continuously open. Visitors to this entrance may drive on top of the sill to the dam, hike the northern half of the sill, and launch boats both north (canoe only) and south (canoe or motorized) from the dam. No staff or concessions are located at this entrance.
Stephen C. Foster State Park
Not to be confused with the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in north Florida, the Stephen C. Foster State Park, located eighteen miles northeast of Fargo, is the final access point for the Okefenokee. As the Okefenokee Swamp contains the headwaters of the Suwannee River, the park was named for the composer of the famous tune “Old Folks At Home,” more commonly known by its opening line: “Way down upon the Suwannee River, far, far away.”
In addition to a boardwalk and hiking trails, the park has extensive camping facilities ranging from primitive to full RV hookups to air-conditioned cabins. Visitors can rent bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and motorboats, and have full access to the boat trails of the National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, the park offers a wide variety of guided tours for visitors of all ages, including hiking, cycling, paddling, and motorboat tours. Most tours are only offered on weekends, so be sure to check the park’s tour schedule before you go.
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