Monday, June 8, 2015

The 1930 Burnt Swamp Fire

Well with all this hot, dry weather I guess today's post will be about the great fire in 1930 that occurred in what today we call Burnt swamp (over by Selbyville), matter of fact, the fire created the name.

From 1930 to 1936 was a time of extreme drought (think Dustbowl), locally The 1930-32 time period was the most severe agriculture drought ever recorded in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia. Rainfall during that period was about 40 percent less than average. The year 1930 was the driest year since 1869. Crop losses for 1930 were estimated at $40 million. The highest temperature ever recorded in Delaware was 110°, Fahrenheit. This record high was recorded on July 21, 1930 at Millsboro. Some crops and pastures failed due to the drought. Other such as Cantaloupes and cucumbers came thru well. In normal seasons the rains would create disease in cantaloupes and they would die off, due to the driest the season was extended and resulted in high quality cantaloupes.

During this dry spell, the Laurel Rotary sent out a questionnaire asking what did it members think was the most important problem to be solved by the Town of Laurel; their unexpected answers were “we need rain.”

The great cypress swamps from Ellendale down to the south west of Selbyville called Cypress Swamp or Cedar Swamp and would shortly be called Burnt Swamp were dry. The swamp has always been a refuge for British sympathizers, civil war draft dodgers, runaway slaves and moonshiners. Prohibition was in effect (1920 to 1933) and out in the Great Cypress Swamp were moonshiners. Lore has it that in the summer of 1930 one of moonshiner’s still blew up and started a fire. It was a fire that would last for the next eight months and hundreds of firefighters fought it, however the fire got to the dried out peat soil and the peat deposits underground and the buried cypress trees that had fallen and never rotted . The fire would burn underground in the peat popping up in the middle of a farm or next popping up in the middle of the forest. It finally burnt itself out on it’s own.

Gumboro News - From the October, 1930 State Register

From the 1930 fire would come the story of the Selbyville Swamp Monster. Supposedly the apparition of an old shingle-maker who died in the 1930 fire still haunt the edge of the swamp. The Swamp monster has been spotted and photographed a number of times since the first photo of it appeared in the Delmarva News on April 23, 1964.

Parents would threaten children if they weren’t good they would be thrown in the swamp with the monster. Teenager boys would take their girlfriends on drives thru the swamp looking for the monster. People riding thru the swamp would lock the doors on their cars, just in case.

The story was all started by a staged photograph of Fred Stevens in his Halloween costume taken by the by Delmarva News Editor Ralph Grapperhaus in 1964 and grew from there.

In real life the swamp is still thick and hard to find your way around in, hunters and other people get lost for days at a time and have to be rescued, a small charter plane went down there in the 1970's. Rescues were attempted, but by the time the crews got out there, the people were dead. Though the engine was removed, the plane itself is still out there. Maybe a story about the ghost plane is in order.

The 1930 fire was actually the second major fire for the Burnt Swamp area. In June of 1782 the swamp was again dry and by some means caught fire. It continued to burn until caught up in strong southwest winds turned into a fire hell. It destroyed over 3,000 acres of cedar in less than 12 hours. The buildings in the area were in danger, people could not see due to the smoke. The fire was estimated at 100 feet high and the sky was full of live coals. The light of the fire was seen 70 miles away. At the last minute a shift in the winds reduced the fires and they burnt themselves out.

27 years later English botanist Thomas Nutall, who visited the Great Cypress Swamp in 1809, wrote; "We began to enter one of the most frightful labyrinths you can imagine. It was filled with tall tangling shrubs thickly matted together almost impervious to the light." So you can imagine what John Watson and William Parsons of Pennsylvania and John Emory and Thomas Jones of Maryland must have encountered in 1750 when they survey the Transpeninsular Line establishing the east-west boundary between Pennsylvania’s “Three Lower Counties” (now Delaware) and the Colony of Maryland.

The 1750 survey describes getting thru the 13 miles swamp as brutal work and it took them ten days. The surveyors notes recount wading in shoulder high water,flies, and mosquitoes, dangerous snakes, quicksand, poison ivy, and no stable land to set up instruments. The swamp prohibited a stone marker at mile 15, otherwise there is one every five miles in this Transpeninsular Line.

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