The Wakulla Volcano Archive

"The Wakulla Volcano - A Major Mystery"

Tallahassee Democrat "Vista"

(March 15, 1964)

Page 33
The Wakulla Volcano
—A Major Mystery
Democrat Staff Writer

At 9:51 on the night of Aug. 31, 1886, an earth-
quake struck Charleston, S. C. A second shock came
ten minutes later.
The quake, leaving 60 dead and most of the old
coastal city in ruins, was felt over North and Cen-
tral Florida.
It caused church bells to ring in St. Augustine.
It caused water to disappear from Lake Jackson,
near Tallahassee, and started water to flowing in
a long dry town well at Graceville.
It shook the old jail behind the Tallahassee
City Hall, where Tillman's Gift shop now stands
at Jefferson and Adams streets, and wedged a
cell door shut for several hours.
But, most important, the earthquake caused the
disappearance of a phenomenon which had intrigued
adults and excited children in Tallahassee for hun-
dreds of years—the Wakulla Volcano.
Superstition, folklore and imagination had pro-
duced strange tales about the origin of a thin col-
of smoke and sometimes fire which rose from
the dark swamps some 25 miles southeast of Talla-
The mystery was first reported in Spanish colonial
days — the column of hazy smoke may have been
rising on that Easter morning in 1513 when Juan
Ponce de Leon sighted the land he named Florida.
During the Spanish and territorial eras, back-
country folk talked darkly of a pirates' den deep
in the jungle.
Sailors of the early days on seeing the smoke as
they approached the coast said "The old man of the
swamp is smoking his pipe."
Negroes whispered among themselves that the
smoke rose from the Devil's tar kiln.
Before the civil war, a popular theory was
that the smoke came from the campfire of run-
away slaves. During the war, some insisted it
marked the hiding place of deserters.
Writers, historians, and scouts — amateur and
professional — pondered the the mystery seriously and
at least one person, a New York newspaperman,
lost his life trying to solve it.
Novelist Maurice Thompson in his novel "The Tal-
lahassee Girl" related that "every newspaperman
who comes here writes it up — mostly from distance
and hearsay."
He went on to say, however, that the mysterious
smoke was no hoax or figment of imagination. He
called it a "permanent and persistent mystery -
the greatest physical phenomenon in Florida."
Before it disappeared following the Charleston
earthquake, people in Leon, Wakulla and Jefferson
counties would stand on the top of high hills, climb
trees or go up in the Capitol dome the study the
strange column of smoke, sometimes white, some-
times gray and sometimes black.
A warm spring was reportedly found near
the "volcano" but the U. S. Geological Survey
said warm springs are found mostly in oil pro-
ducing regions and oil had not been found east
of the Apalachicola River.                               -----
Four men are known to have seen the "crater"
of the volcano.
In the late 1920s Judge A. L. Porter of Wa-
kulla County, and a forester, James N. Kirkland,
stumbled on to the old volcano while deer hunt-
ing - accomplishing a feat which many had tried
During the dry season of 1932-33 - he's not sure
of the exact date - William Wyatt and Fred Wim-
pee set out on an expedition which led them to the
crater. Wyatt, now in the office supplies business
in Tallahassee, still has the notes he made after
the trip. Wimpee is in business in Jacksonville.
"We were crazy!" recalled Wyatt. "We started
out in a Model T Ford with a machete, a hand
ax, a flashlight and a small bag of sandwiches.
I remember it was about dawn on Saturday.
"We planned to get back that night but we
were lucky to get back late Sunday night. We
followed directions left by a Chicago news-
paperman who had advanced near the column
of smoke before he became exhausted and had
to turn back.
"He had left slats nailed to a tall pine tree which
he climbed to get his bearings. We found the
tree and some of the pieces of wood were still
nailed to the tree."
The two young men drove their car as far as
it would go, the proceeded on foot. They traveled
first to Flint Rock, an abandoned sawmill site
about 25 miles southeast of Tallahassee, then on
five miles south to Fanlew, another old sawmill
"That was the jumping-off place" Wyatt said.
"We hacked our way southwest toward the Gulf
and after about three miles we found what we
were looking for just outside the edge of the
There, Wyatt said, they found rocks as big as
houses strewn over an area about four miles.
"The rocks looked burned. The boulders were
so big we would chop through undergrowth
and come face to face with what appeared to
be a solid stone wall.
"Some queer work of nature had gone on there.
It was a gruesome place. Right by great sinks
(continued on page 36)
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