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Death Lake, Florida

The Outing Magazine


Some years ago, I was stationed at Fort Barrancas, on the west coast of Florida, and at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. It was the custom of the military authorities every summer, as the sickly season approached, to order all the troops stationed in garrisons along the southern coasts into camps among the pine-trees to escape the fatal fever. The camps were selected with a view to health and isolation combined.

In the year of which I write, we were ordered up into the pine woods about thirty-six miles north-west of Pensacola. The camp was several miles from the only line of railroad then existing in that country, and fifteen miles from the nearest settlement, which happened to be a railroad and telegraph station also. The yellow fever had already broken out with terrible violence in New Orleans, and all the southern coast was alarmed. Of course, we were obliged to maintain the strictest quarantine to prevent any communication between our camp and the outside world. This was necessary, as the country soon became filled with refugees from the plague-stricken districts, yet it made our existence particularly doleful. We received fresh meat only once a week, and as it was brought in an open cart thirty-six miles in the hot sun, the term fresh was about all there was of that significance about it. We lived on potted meats and canned vegetables and fruits almost entirely. Nothing was allowed inside the lines except the mails, and even they had to be disinfected outside before admission. News of the outside world was a week to ten days old, and as the weather was extremely hot, it can be easily imagined that our existence was not particularly rose-colored.

Judge, then, of the delight and pleasure we all experienced when, one sultry evening, when the very air was quivering and dancing with heat, an old man came into camp with a large basket full of beautiful little fresh-water fish. How he passed the line of sentinels no one cared to inquire, the probability being that the guards, knowing what a boon he had in his basket, winked at his passing. He came direct to the line of officers' tents, and in five minutes had sold all his fish at a good price. We asked him where the fish came from, and he answered "Death Lake." I had heard of "Death Lake" a number of times, and the negroes in the neighborhood always spoke of it with bated breath and a mysterious air, so that my curiosity concerning it was much aroused. I therefore asked the old man to my tent, where I could talk to him about it. After he had seated himself and taken a drink of cool water, fresh from the spring, I asked him the name of the fish and when and where he caught them.

"They be brim, mister, and they wuz caught by me early this mawnin' in the lake."

"But where is the lake?" I inquired, and why is it called Death Lake?"

"Wal," he answered, "it lies about six miles from here, in the middle of a big swamp, and it is called Death Lake, I reckon, because no one can't git there without losing his life."

"Yet you have been there, and you are alive," I replied.

"Yes, but I've most lost my life as much as a dozen times, and I'm only forty years old."

He looked fully seventy, and he was much bowed and broken. His eyes were deep sunk, and had a watery opaqueness; his cheeks were sallow, and there were only a few straggling white hairs on his head. His answer surprised me, and I pressed him to tell me his story, which, after a while, he did, although he was much averse to it. After a time I prevailed upon the old man to take me to the lake next day. "But it is at your own risk, young man," he said "remember, if you dies, I told you all about it, and you can't blame me."

"Not if I die," I replied; "but I am strong and healthy, and willing to take the risk."

I easily obtained the necessary permission to leave the camp, as I was not going near the settlements, or where the fever existed, and I moreover promised to bring back a good string of fish for the commanding officer. The next morning I met the old man at daybreak, just outside the lines, and off we started together. He carried his large basket and a couple of fish-poles made of reeds he had cut in the swamps. I carried our lunch and a coffee-pot.

We tramped for about two hours through the woods, till we came to a small river called "Perdido," from the Spanish word for "lost." "Lost River" was a very good name for it, as it had its origin in Death Lake, and lost itself completely in the swamps after many turnings. Close to the bank, the old man had a flat-bottomed skiff moored, in which we paddled up the stream for a half-mile, when we reached the confines of the large swamp in which Death Lake is situated. The scenery here is of the typical Florida nature. On either side the stream was bounded by the swamp. Huge cypress trees lifted their weird limbs upward, and long streamers of trailing moss floated from them, and even at times formed a swinging arch across the entire width of the stream. The water was dark and sullen, and on the banks, wherever a little sunshine happened to strike, half a dozen alligators might be seen basking, which, on our approach, would flop into the water with a tremendous splash. After paddling up the sides of the swamp for a couple of miles we came to an archway, which appeared to have been cut by man through the foliage of trees and vines. It was not over four feet high and about eight wide, and from it the water flowed with a scarcely perceptible current.

"Now, Loot'nent," said the old man, "we've got to go up this creek, and you'll have to kneel down like this, for we have to stoop pretty low in places."

Once inside the arch, it became very dark, for though the sun was shining brightly outside, it could not penetrate through the dense foliage of vines. The little stream turned and twisted in the most tortuous channel I ever saw, and often it was with difficultly that we managed to turn the boat round the sharp and narrow corners. At length, after paddling in this fashion for over half a mile, we emerged into the famous Death Lake.

Right well had it been named, for the very feeling it had in breathing its atmosphere was of death. It seemed more like a river than a lake, for though by its various windings and twistings it was several miles long, it was never, in its widest part, over sixty yards wide, and throughout most of its length not over yards. The banks were lined by impressive trees that towered upward to a height of eighty feet or more. From their branches hung long festoons and trails of Florida moss, while the roots of the trees, half of out water, assumed such weird and fantastic shapes that they seemed like immense serpents that had become suddenly petrified in their writings. So dense was the foliage that it formed an impenetrable wall to both sun and wind, and the sunlight never touched the water except between the hours of 12 and 2 P.M. Not a breath had stirred the waters for years, and they were covered to a depth of several inches in a green vegetable slime, so that appearance was that of a beautiful level floor, on which one might walk.

We reached the lake about ten minutes before the sun, and there was consequently a very strange light over the water. It had much the effect of a twilight above, through which the sun was breaking, while close to the water hung a mist, heavy, silent and motionless. But the tops of the trees the sun had touched with his master-strokes and created tints more beautiful than could any painter's brush. So still was it that the silence was actually oppressive and, though we were startled at the sound our own voices, we would have been glad to have heard the noise of some animal sounds.

But all round us was death; no sign life anywhere. No birds in the trees; no insects in the air. Even the reptiles and snakes avoided the fearful place. To breathe such air for an hour, except the sun was directly over the water, would be death to any living creature. Even the water was lifeless, and the trees and all vegetation were dead, except the moss, which lived at the expense of all else. The old man had told me in his queer parlance that the lake had no bottom, for although he had dropped 900 feet of line, he had never touched. I had taken the precaution to bring with me two of my sea trolling lines, and fastening them together, I had a line 250 feet long. With this I sounded in several places, but only proved the old man's words, for I never touched bottom. I afterwards learned, as the explanation of this, that all Western Florida is of a limestone formation, and so I presume this lake is one of those wonders that have their sources far away down in the bowels of the earth.

As soon as the sun touched the water we let our fish-lines down to a depth of about thirty feet, and soon began to pull out very quickly the "brim"—a corruption of the name of bream. Although, when the hand was thrust through the slime, the water had a horrible slimy, warm feeling, the fish came up cold and firm, showing that below the water was clear and cold. The fish had the same dull, opaque eyes as fish of subterranean caves, proving that the vegetable mould on the water's surface had for many years formed a bar to any light in the water.

In the two hours we managed to nearly fill our boat, for the fish bit as fast as we could throw the line overboard; so about two o'clock we stopped, and paddled out as quickly as possible to avoid those poisonous vapors that killed all animal life, Notwithstanding the sport, so weird and unearthly strange was the place that I was glad to leave it. I could well understand its name now, and as we passed through the tortuous archway, I thought of the many negroes in the old slavery days, that escaping to this swamp to find liberty found death instead.

After reaching the river, the old man suggested our stopping at a place on the banks, where the ground rose in a little knoll, and cooking some of our freshly caught fish. I agreed to the proposition, and as we reached the bank I jumped out and took three or four steps inland, when the old man sharply cried, "Look out, Loot'nent ! See there!" at the same time pointing, as he stood up in the boat, to something directly in front of me. I looked and beheld, about a yard from me, a huge moccasin snake, the most deadly poisonous reptile of the South upreared to strike me. I involuntarily took a step backward, and as I did so I heard another hiss behind me, and then others on all sides. One quick, horrified glance showed me that I was surrounded by at least a dozen of these fearful reptiles, all coiled and ready to strike. For an instant I was paralyzed and unable to move, and it was, perhaps, well that it was so, as I should probably have stepped on one and been bitten.

"Move carefully and come away," the old man cried. "If you don't git close to them they can't hurt you; they're casting their skins."

So it proved. It seems that this spot of ground, being drier than its surroundings and more exposed to the sun, had, by the natural instinct of the creatures, been selected as the place for the annual changing of their skins. While this process is going on they are almost incapable of motion. As a rule they will move off when disturbed, provided they are not attacked, but in this case they could not; but had I got within striking distance they would have bitten me. I picked my way out very daintily, and stepped into the boat, with no further desire to eat fish till I got back to camp. Indeed, I felt quite faint as I realized my narrow escape. We paddled down the river, soon reached our landing-place, and then made a bee-line for camp, which we reached just at dark. With such a string of fish, my return was heartily welcomed; but after hearing my adventures, no one else seemed anxious to make the visit to the lake.

I wanted to revisit the lake, till one morning, about two weeks after my visit, I was taken suddenly ill, and before the day was over I was unconscious with the terrible "swamp fever." I had a long and hard fight for my life, and though I conquered in the end, I lost all desire to ever see the horrible place again.

Excerpt from Hamilton, W.R., "A Visit to Death Lake, Florida" The Outing Magazine, 1888.


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