By Christina Holden
Have you ever imagined what it’s like to paddle through a bald cypress swamp?
With spring’s arrival, now is a great time to plan a trip to Pocomoke River
State Park in Worcester County to uncover the secrets of the Great Cypress
Swamp. Travel just 20 minutes outside of Salisbury and three miles south of Snow
Hill, and you will stumble upon Shad Landing where you can begin your journey to
learn more about the history and inhabitants of this often-misunderstood
Mysterious and lush, mature stands of bald cypress draped with Spanish moss
represent the primeval nature of the southern swamps. These forested wetlands
are found in the southeastern Coastal Plain along streams, rivers, spring runs
or ponds with still or slow moving water. The Great Cypress Swamp originates on
the Maryland-Delaware border and flows southwest for 73 miles before emptying
into Pocomoke Sound. It is the northernmost bald cypress swamp in the United
Bald cypress trees are deciduous trees with needle-like leaves. They can grow up
to 120 feet tall and live up to 600 years. The trees are most easily recognized
by their “knees” and buttressed trunks. It is believed the knees serve as an
oxygen supply to the submerged root system and help protect the trees from high
wind and unstable environments.
The Pocomoke River basin is an area rich in the history of the Delmarva
Peninsula. Archaeological evidence indicates the river’s first inhabitants lived
more than 10,000 years ago. Recorded site data shows the Pocomokes, Nanticokes,
Nassawattox, and several other tribes of the Algonquin Nation, set up villages
along its banks. By the late 1600s, these Native American communities were
scattered as a result of encroaching European colonization. Nearly 300 years
later, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Pocomoke as part of
the Beach to Bay Indian Trail, a National Recreational Trail to identify and
preserve the area’s cultural history.
In the growing economy of the late 1700s and early 1800s, the hardwood of the
bald cypress was in high demand as it was discovered to be extremely resistant
to rot and decay. Early settlers along the Pocomoke began logging the swamp,
using the cypress wood for shipbuilding, shingles, siding on homes, water tanks
and coffins. In addition, brick manufacturing, the smelting of iron from the
swamp’s bog ore, and the shipping of tobacco and lumber flourished. Snow Hill
and Pocomoke City soon developed as the principal towns along the river.
By the mid-1800s, the swamp had become an important link in the Underground
Railroad; escaping slaves and their abolitionist guides followed the river into
Delaware and eventually north to the safety and freedom of Pennsylvania. The
swamp also attracted its share of miscreants: During the Civil War, deserting
Union and Confederate troops, outlaws, bootleggers and smugglers, all found
refuge in the inaccessible wilderness beneath the tall cypress trees.
After the war, as things returned to normal and technology improved, the swamp
became more accessible to lumbermen and most of its trees were cut down. The
Pocomoke River swamp forest had been completely timbered by the 1930s when the
federal government began acquiring abandoned land in the watershed. The state
assumed control of the land in the mid-1950s and with subsequent protection, the
swamp has returned to a more natural state. The trees you’ll see along the
Pocomoke River today are approximately 100 years old.
While exploring the cypress swamp at Pocomoke River State Park, visitors often
ask why the water appears so dark. Pocomoke is a Native American word meaning
“black water.” The tannic acid found in the cypress needles and the decaying
leaves of trees and plants that line its banks, seep into the river creating the
dark, brown color. Despite its appearance, the water is not dirty! To the
contrary -- it serves as a thriving habitat for fish, birds and mammals. As any
number of anglers who set out in the early morning hours in search of largemouth
bass, trout, perch and bluegills will attest. The cypress swamp also provides
breeding sites for a variety of toads, frogs and salamanders.
Pocomoke River State Park has become a popular destination for birdwatchers from
all over the country. Bald eagles, osprey and other birds of prey
are often seen
nesting in the top of the bald cypress trees. The common prothonotary warbler
builds nests in the cavities of decaying cypress knees. The park becomes
increasingly popular in late April as visitors flock to the Delmarva Peninsula
to celebrate the migration of hundreds of warblers, waterfowl, nesting birds and
raptors during Delmarva Birding Weekend.
The Pocomoke River is one of only nine rivers in the state of Maryland
designated as a Wild and Scenic River. You can explore the swamp by boat, which
you can rent at Shad Landing. And be sure to pick up a copy of Corker’s Creek
Canoe Trail Guide- Life in a Bald Cypress Swamp. This self-guided interpretive
map will take you on a 2-mile paddle through the swamp. Guided trips along the
river with a park naturalist are also offered on weekends throughout the summer
For information on planned canoe trips for 2006, visit the DNR website at
www.dnr.maryland.gov and click on the Events Calendar. To
purchase a Pocomoke River State Park Trail Guide or Annual Park Passes, visit
the DNR Online Store at
To learn more about the Bay to Beach Indian Trail, visit http://www.byways.org
For more information on the annual Delmarva Birding Weekend, visit http://www.mdcoastalbays.org
Christina Holden is Public Relations
& Marketing Manager for the Maryland Park Service. She has been with DNR since
May 2003. Christina lives in Greensboro, in Caroline County, and like any good
Eastern Shore resident, enjoys fishing, crabbing, hunting and being outdoors.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue
of The Maryland Natural Resource magazine.