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.
area was not a continuous swamp. There were flat lowland
areas of swampy and wet land.
swamp forests of
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
and other more
tree species were dominant. On the elevated
and the beach ridges with much better to excessive
drainage, more xeric tree species, like
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
filled with seas of grasses that waved in the wind. The
trees were so dense in areas, light couldn't reach the
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
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.
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
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.