The Great Black Swamp
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The Great Black Swamp
You wouldn't believe it now but 100 years ago, most of NW Ohio was covered with trees and a Great Black Swamp.
Many thousands of years ago, the glaciers cut out a low land that never emptied of water. This low area ran about 120 miles by 40 miles, from New Haven, Indiana to Toledo, Ohio. The 12 counties in NW Ohio were either totally or mostly included in this swampy area. For thousands of years it was a place, even the Indians avoided, full of thick growths of trees and brush, an inhabitable area. It covered a space as large as the Florida Everglades.

The area was not a continuous swamp. There were flat lowland areas of swampy and wet land.  Deciduous swamp forests of ash, elm, cottonwood and sycamore trees predominated in these areas. In other places during the summer the water was "up to the belly of a horse." Where there was better drainage, trees like beech, maples, basswood, tulip tree and other more mesic tree species were dominant. On the elevated moraines and the beach ridges with much better to excessive drainage, more xeric tree species, like oak and hickory, flourished. Conifer trees were not found here unlike the northern swamps of Minnesota. There was also areas that were not forested. Instead they were vast areas of marsh and wet prairies filled with seas of grasses that waved in the wind. The trees were so dense in areas, light couldn't reach the floor.

It was full of wild life. Animals also flourished in the wet lands. Boar, bobcat, black bear and timber wolf were plentiful and protected by the swamp. Many varieties of birds and other flora and fauna proliferated.

In the winter time, the land and water froze over. Come summer time, the ice melted leaving behind a rich black muck. Unlike the warmer Everglades, the trees here were broad leave Oak and Ash that kept the floor of the forest in the dark.

How did such a land come to be? When the massive glaciers pushed down from the North, they moved like  a massive bulldozer. Not only did the glaciers level the land, but they also dug out lowlands. When the Wisconsin Glacier melted, 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age, it left behind lots of water that had no place to go. Along the leading edges of the glacier sand, earth and rocks were left. This ridge was called a Moraines. These ridges prevented the water from draining west, north and south.  And except for the rivers, from draining into Lake Erie. And the glaciers not only pushed soil in front of them but they also deposited and compacted it. There are areas in NW Ohio this rich topsoil is 90 feet thick.

The Northern Moraine borders what is now the St. Joseph River south from Michigan, across NW Ohio to Fort Wayne, IN. The Southern Moraine borders the St. Mary's River, again running from Ohio to the confluence of the Three Rivers in Fort Wayne. The Maumee River runs through the Swamp area in Defiance County, then creates the Northern Border to Toledo, OH. It covered thousands of square miles, an area almost as large as Connecticut.

When the white settlers entered this part of Ohio, the Great Black Swamp was at best a place to cross over to get to western edge and find the Indiana Territory or Michigan to the North. This was not an area to settle in.









Click on the image for a larger view. Image from the Black Swamp Conservancy.

The sky would turn black from the masses of insects. And most of these insects were looking for a meal. The swamp was problem enough, but with the insects came sickness. The mosquito-infested swamp gave no end to the variety of sicknesses and maladies.  Cholera, typhoid, milk sickness and malarial fevers were known as "ague".


People who were brave enough to settle here placed bottles filled with quinine powder on the table right beside the salt and pepper shakers, to sprinkle on food. Chills or shakes as they were known then took years to get over according to a doctor of the time. People got the shakes from about the beginning of July until the first frost killed the mosquitoes. One doctor wrote the shakes were so violent when they came on, the bed and the floor would rattle.

The Black Swamp was for the most part in passable. The Indians used the ridges to enter the swamp to hunt. One didn't want to just wander into it for fear of getting lost. A corduroy road was built out of trees from what is now Perrysburg to Fremont in 1825. It was paved with gravel in 1838. But travel in the wet season was all but impossible and could take days or even weeks to cross. Not a great place to spend weeks.

Several things sealed the fate of the Great Black Swamp. Doctors of those times thought the fevers were caused by the bad air coming from the swamp. No one considered it was the blood sucking insects that spread the diseases. This was idea was a major beginning of the determination to drain the swamp. People who farmed on the dry lands knew how rich the soil was. And then there were all those beautiful, ancient trees.  A proposal was made to the Ohio legislature to start draining the swamp. It might have been a massive effort but it would be a simple idea. During building of roads and farming people learned digging ditches would result in the water running somewhere else. So huge ditches were dug to divert the water to rivers and Lake Erie.

In the early 1800's the decision was made to build canals to transport people and goods through this area. Two canals were to be built, the Miami-Erie Canal and the Wabash-Erie Canal. In 1837 Grand Lake at St. Mary's, Lake Loramie, and Indian Lake were dug out to feed the Canals. Drainage laws were passed in Ohio from 1841-1859. Then in 1843-1845 the Canals were opened. In 1850 logging and draining started in the Black Swamp. Toledo became a major sea port to ship the hardwoods to Europe. By 1879 half of all the forests in the swamp were gone. The Jackson Cut Off was completed to drain even more of the swamp. 15,000 miles of ditches were dug, mostly by hand.

As the swamp drained it left behind some of the most fertile land in all of North America. You can imagine massive amounts of topsoil were scooped up from Canada by the glaciers and deposited here. Then for 1,000's of years rich vegetation lived and died in the swamp. You would be hard pressed to find land any richer any place in the world.

It took nature 10,000 years to build the swamp. White man had it drained and planted with crops within 50 years. The only reminder left of the Great Black Swamp are the remains of the drainage ditches dug to empty it.



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