US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version

July 1947


Conservation in Action NUMBER FOUR


Mattamuskeet, Pea Island, and Swanquarter-- two on the mainland and one on the outermost barrier beach--are three National Wildlife Refuges in North Carolina that provide winter food and shelter for more than 100,000 waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans that in summer scatter across the northern rim of the world from Greenland to Alaska come down the sky lanes in the fall and in these refuges find the conditions they need to survive the hard months of winter.

At Mattamuskeet you can see one of the largest assemblages of Canada geese on the Atlantic seaboard and more of that giant white bird, the whistling swan, than the average person is likely to see in a lifetime. Pea Island is a winter haven for thousands of snow geese, Canada geese, and such ducks as goldeneyes, pintails, and mallards. At Swanquarter the diving ducks like buffleheads and scaups find the salt waters and the submerged aquatic plants that they need to tide them over winter.

These refuges lie within the Atlantic flyway of the waterfowl. There are four such flyways in the United States, the others being the Mississippi, the Central, and the Pacific.

The Atlantic flyway has extensive breeding grounds, scattered from the eastern border of the continent to the western, but its winter range is only a narrow strip on the Atlantic coast of the United States, an area that is also densely settled and developed for agriculture and industry. Waterfowl refuges are especially needed in this flyway to provide plenty of food and shelter for the birds during the critical winter period. This booklet tells the story of Mattamuskeet, which is the largest of the three refuges in North Carolina and the most accessible to visitors, and which in some respects is unique among all wildlife refuges. It also includes brief accounts of Swanquarter and Pea Island.

MATTAMUSKEET—the rhythmic softness of the Indian name recalls the days when tribes of the Algonquin roamed the flat plains of the coast and hunted game in deep forests of cypress and pine. The Indians are gone, leaving few traces upon the land they once knew. Much of the forest as the Indians knew it is gone, too, but even today some of the wildest country of the Atlantic coast is to be found in this easternmost part of the Carolina mainland-the area bounded by Albemarle Sound on the north and Pamlico Sound on the east and south. Here, in this coastal region, are dense woods of pine, cypress, and gum; here are wide, silent spaces where the wind blows over seas of marsh grass and the only living things are the birds and the small, unseen inhabitants of the marshes.

The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge includes about 50,000 acres of land and water in this Carolina coastal country, in the county of Hyde. The dominant geographic feature of the refuge is Lake Mattamuskeet--a shallow, sluggish body of water more than 15 miles long, 5 or 6 miles across, and some 30,000 acres in extent. Being little more than 3 feet deep anywhere, the lake is stirred deeply by the winds and its waters are usually muddy. Silt-filled waters support little plant life, and so the best feeding grounds for the waterfowl are not in the open lake but in its surrounding marshes. Cypress trees form most of the northern border of the lake, but its eastern and southern shores pass into low swamplands.

Try to learn the origins of this vast inland lake and at once you stumble upon a collection of local legends in which it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Of all the stories of the genesis of Mattamuskeet, local opinion divides its support between two. According to one story, the Indians long ago set fires in the peat bogs, fires that burned so long and deeply that a huge, saucer-like depression was formed. This caught the rains and the drainage water, creating a lake. The other story has it that a shower of giant meteors once struck the Carolina coastal plain, the impact of the largest ones digging out the beds of Lake Mattamuskeet and the smaller, but otherwise similar, Lakes Alligator, Pungo, and Phelps that lie northwest of Mattamuskeet.

The modern history of Mattamuskeet, although less stirring to the imagination, has been a troubled one. The flat plain between Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds is an agricultural country that yields crops of soy beans, cotton, collards, and grain. On the whole it has too much, rather than too little water. About 1914, people conceived the idea of draining Lake Mattamuskeet and converting its shallow bottom to farm land. Being patterned after similar projects in Holland, this community was named "New Holland." The history of this attempt is too long to tell here-the digging of a network of canals, the building of pumping plants and a community of cottages, the spending of millions of dollars, the bankruptcy of one company after another, and the eventual abandonment of the scheme as impractical and impossibly expensive.

In 1934 the land was acquired by the United States Government and a waterfowl sanctuary was established. The Civilian Conservation Corps converted the former pumping plant into a refuge office and. store rooms, combined with a modem, comfortably furnished lodge for visitors. A circular staircase was built into the former smoke stack of the pumping plant, turning it into an observation tower. This 120-foot tower affords a magnificent view of the entire refuge and the surrounding country, with thousands of geese and swans often in sight at one time.