ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Suwannee River Sill, Georgia
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Suwannee River Sill, Georgia
Suwannee Sill Recreation Area
A large alligator drifts along the Suwannee River
Sill, a massive dam built in 1960 to hold water in the
Okefenokee Swamp during times of drought.
Suwannee Sill
The Sill is located near the
west entrance to Okefenokee
National Wildlife Refuge, 18
miles from Fargo, Georgia.
Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area - Fargo, Georgia
Edge of the Okefenokee Swamp
Copyright 2012 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.

Last Update: June 12, 2012
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Okefenokee Swamp
The Suwannee Sill was built
to control water levels, but
also offers visitors a place to
see the Okefenokee Swamp
and enjoy outdoor activities.
Suwannee Sill at Low Water
The Sill was built after fires
burned across much of the
Okefenokee Swamp in the
Suwannee Sill
The Sill is a long earthen dam
that blocks the flow of water
from the Okefenokee into the
Suwannee River. Gates allow
water to flow through the dam
and can be opened or closed
as needed.
Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area is part
of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
(NWR) and is located about 18 miles from
Fargo, Georgia.

Built where the famed Suwannee River flows
from the Okefenokee Swamp, the Sill is a
massive water control structure or dam built
by the Federal government in 1960. It is five
miles long and was designed to hold water
in the swamp during times of drought.

The U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, which
manages the Okefenokee NWR, uses the
Suwannee River Sill as a route for visitors to
access the swamp and headwaters of the
river. A paved road leads along the top of the
southern one-third of the long earthen dike or
dam. It runs as far as the first concrete gate
or water control structure, where a canoe
launch, hiking trails and dramatic scenery
can be accessed.

So why was the dam built in the first place?
The answer has to do with times of drought
and a series of wildfires that broke out in the
Okefenokee Swamp during the 1950s.

The importance of fire to the natural life of the
swamp was not very well understood in the
1950s and some of the best and brightest
minds were tasked with finding a way to
prevent it. The engineers and researchers
quickly realized that drought conditions in the
Okefenokee had allowed the fires to spread.
They logically decided that if they could hold
more water in the swamp during times when
conditions were very dry, they could prevent
such fires from sparking and spreading.

The much loved Suwannee River is the
largest river that flows from the Okefenokee
and the engineers decided to try to control
the amount of water it carried away to the Gulf
of Mexico. The result of their planning was
the Suwannee River Sill, construction of
which was completed in 1960.

Basically a long earthen dam, the Sill was
designed to hold water in the swamp during
times of drought. Two concrete and steel
water control structures or gates pass
through the dam, allowing the primary
channels of the Suwannee River to flow out
of the swamp. It was thought that such a dam
could prevent key areas of the swamp from
going dry in years of low rainfall and in the
process could help prevent wildfires in the

In fact, the five mile long structure never
worked as planned. Studies have shown that
it only holds back enough water to impact
about one percent of the great swamp.

The Okefenokee has always experienced
times of drought and times of high water.
Wildfires have been part of the life of the
swamp since long before the first human
entered its vastness.

The beautiful open prairies of the swamp
were created by wildfires that swept through
the Okefenokee many years ago. These
natural fires served to prevent out of control
wildfires in the swamp, by reducing the
amount of brush and other natural fuel
available to burn. In other words, when fires
naturally took place in the swamp on a
regular basis, they were less destructive and
played an important role in protecting
surrounding lands from wildfire.
Natural Places in Georgia
The staff of the Okefenokee National Wildlife
Refuge now sets prescribed burns each year
to clear underbrush and other accumulated
fuel from upland areas. As many as 12,000
acres are burned annually to keep down
underbrush and simulate the smaller fires
that once burned naturally in the swamp. It is
hoped that over time these efforts will protect
adjoining lands and limit damage to the
swamp itself by returning the Okefenokee to
a more natural cycle.

In 1998, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
conducted an environmental impact study
that concluded the Sill should be breached
and its two concrete water control structures
removed. Additional studies were conducted
by other agencies.

The idea of breaching the Suwanee River Sill
after 52 years has been controversial, with
some favoring the idea and others opposing
it. Environmental groups have even called for
the removal of the entire structure, but many
area residents have opposed such an idea
out of fear that removing the Sill will limit their
access to the Okefenokee.

At present, the Okefenokee National Wildlife
Refuge has tried to reach reasonable middle
ground by allowing water to flow more
normally down the Suwannee while also
using the Sill as a way to open more public
access to the swamp. The completion of the
paved road, ramp, hiking trails and parking
area about one-third of the way down the Sill
at its first water control structure achieves the
latter goal in a noteworthy manner.

Suwannee RIver Sill Recreation Area is open
to the public during daylight hours (camping
is not allowed). It is accessed via Georgia
177 and can be reached by the first paved
road to the left after passing through the
western gate of the refuge near Fargo. A $5
parking pass must be purchased at nearby
Stephen C. Foster State Park.