Map of Burnt Swamp
Ashboro and Burnt Swamp are fictional settings, of course, but they are based on a composite of Eastern Shore landmarks.
You might be surprised to learn that there is a real place called Burnt Swamp. The entrance is located between the towns of Gumboro and Selbyville, along the south Delaware/Maryland border. Road 54 goes through the Swamp, and there are numerous legends about mysterious occurrences that took place there over the years. While Uncle Warne's problem of a ten-year fire that can't be extinguished and the evil that dwells beneath the surface are imaginary, Burnt Swamp and its fiery history is authentic. Read the article (below) by Michael Morgan that appeared in the Sussex Journal section of the Delaware Wave on August 15, 2007.
In creating the fictional town of Ashboro, the author, who lives in Georgetown, Delaware, morphed her surroundings into the setting of The Burnt Swamp Trilogy and had the artist depict them. Sussex County residents will notice that Ashboro is designed around The Georgetown Circle and may recognize the town hall, the antique shop (Fennemore's Dollar Store), and the original Century Club / Georgetown library (Ashboro Library). Redden Lodge was used as the basis for the Daark's new home.
Fire of '29, One of the worst in swamp's history
by Michael Morgan
After the first alarm was sounded, fire companies from Georgetown, Millsboro and Selbyville rushed over unpaved roads into the darkest corner of southern Delaware. As the firefighters hurried through the deep forest, clouds of smoke and smoldering ashes floated through the air. On October 12, 1929, the Great Cypress Swamp was ablaze.
When the Europeans arrived in Sussex County, they discovered a great swamp that straddled the border between Delaware and Maryland. During colonial times, the Cypress Swamp was considered the most remarkable natural feature of southern Delaware. In 1797, a resident of Delaware noted, "The Indian River Swamps, otherwise called the Cypress Swamps, are situated in Delaware and Maryland States, a little to the Southward of the True Cape Henlopen and distant from the sea about ten miles. They are full seven miles from East to West and ten or twelve from North to South, so that they must contain near fifty thousand acres of land. Several rivers are traced to this great source, such as the Pocomoke, the Indian River and the St. Martins. The whole of this immense swamp is a high and level basin and consequently very wet; tho' undoubtedly the highest land between the sea and the bay, the waters descending from it in all directions."
During the 17th century, the swamp was avoided by most people, and colonists preferred to settle on the thickly wooded land near the coastal bays. In the middle of the 18th century, however, Colonel John Dagworthy began to drain the land on the edge of the swamp to create more farmland. Dagworthy also discovered that logs made from downed cypress trees made particularly high-quality shingles; and he established camps in the swamp to produce shingles that were sold throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
Other farmers on the perimeter of the swamp followed Dagworthy's example and they filled in the marshland to create arable fields. By the middle of the 19th century, a significant portion of the swamp had been drained and filled; but a large tract several miles wide remained. Most of the time, the floor of the swamp was a boggy marsh; but when a drought lowered the water table, the base of the swamp turned into a bed of dry peat several feet thick. In 1929, southern Delaware was in the midst of a severe drought that turned the swamp into a 5,000 acre tinderbox.
Although there had been frequent fires in the swamp, the one that began on October 12 was one of the worst on record. According to the Delaware Coast News: "This is said to be the most destructive fire that has originated in that area within the past half century. From time immemorial, however, the swamp has been on fire each year, burning over a few hundred acres, but these annual fires have usually been among the undergrowth. The fire now sweeping through the swamp is doing an unusually large amount of damage, causing losses of many thousands of dollars. Throughout the many thousands of acres can be found turf which reaches from five to ten feet into the earth. It is stated that the turf is on fire as well as the valuable trees. The fire in many sections has eaten its way several feet into the ground. Rabbits and all kinds of wild game are hastily leaving the devastating fire, and it is said large number of snakes have been driven out and can be found on the outskirts of the swamp."
The Delaware Coast News concluded: "The cause of the fire is unknown. It may have been caused by someone dropping a lighted match or a cigarette or cigar butt in the woods, but it is the opinion of many that the fire was caused by moonshiners, who had selected the depth of the forest to operate their stills unknown to the owners and the people in the neighborhood."
Regardless of the cause of the blaze, the firefighters had little success fighting the fire until heavy storms swept through southern Delaware. The rain soaked through the dry peat and helped to douse much of the fire. Continued wet weather ended the fire; but drought conditions returned during the following summer. In August, 1930, another fire erupted in the swamp that sent clouds of embers floating over the coastal region. Resident of southern Delaware had learned that whenever the swamp was dry there would be a chance of a major fire.
Michael Morgan lectures frequently on coastal history and is author of Pirates and Patriots, Tales of the Delaware Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.