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Wilderness Wanderer to Wetland Warrior

Delaware Great Cypress Swamp backlit

Edmund H. “Ted” Harvey was enchanted by swamps from a young age. In a late-life interview, he recalled his first encounter with them: “I saw the Great Pocomoke Swamp as a boy, and it was love at first sight. I knew then that these ecosystems needed protecting.”  

Ted Harvey was the son of Renee du Pont and LeRoy Harvey, Wilmington’s mayor in the early 1920s. Harvey was also a nephew of T. Coleman du Pont, famous for the Du Pont Highway. Tragically, both of Harvey’s parents passed away while he was still young. Without their guidance and direction, he found himself aimlessly wandering through a life of pleasure without responsibility. 

Harvey drifted down to the Florida Keys, where he lost no time immersing himself in a lifestyle of excess. The fresh man-about-town filled his days with playing the piano, singing, and fishing in the state’s sun-kissed waters. Harvey eventually started his own resort on Vaca Key, all the while shuttling regularly between the family manse in Wilmington and the Keys.  

Awakening in the Everglades

Living the high life soon led to his drinking getting out of hand. Seemingly, playboy fantasies got the best of him. For many decades, Harvey was held captive by the bottle’s clutches. The turning point away from his addiction came when Harvey volunteered to work as a guide in the Florida Everglades.  

“My experience of what’s happened to cypress in Florida—nearly total destruction—made me want not to see it happen in Delaware,” he said later. “Vast stands were annihilated.” That shock finally galvanized him to do something socially meaningful about the Delaware cypress groves he’d been infatuated with as a boy. He sobered up at age 49 and put the Florida party routine behind him.  

Harvey eventually made his way back to Delaware for good and determined to make a difference in the world of wetland conservation. Tapping du Pont family connections, he was able to assemble a team of nine Wilmington philanthropists. They collaborated to establish Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. (DWL) in September 1961. Philadelphia Conservationists, Inc. underwrote an $8,000 loan to fuel this new venture, one leading to even more possibilities. 

At 29, Ted Harvey saw the Florida Everglades ravaged by dredging and unregulated lumbering. Five years after this 1940 photo, authorities established Everglades National Park to protect the area.
At 29, Ted Harvey saw the Florida Everglades ravaged by dredging and unregulated lumbering. Five years after this 1940 portrait, authorities established Everglades National Park to protect the area.

Network ties helped Harvey quickly build a nucleus of land purchases in the organization’s nascent years. Edward and Viola Arvey, for example, sold them a mere 10 acres. Another early investor came forward and offered another 80 acres at Trussum Pond. Word spread fast and the parcel sizes grew in tandem. Sussex Trust Company conveyed the organization 119 acres late in 1962. 

Harvey eloquently stated his commitment to broader wilderness conservation in the 1963 winter issue of the ‘Delaware Conservationist.’ “Planning Isn’t Dreaming” as he championed the Cape Henlopen wilderness of dunes, wind-twisted pines, and hidden little blue ponds. Harvey urged proactive planning to protect the shores of Rehoboth Bay, Indian River, Assawoman Bay, and other fresh or salt waters. Two years later, the magazine recognized this eco-activist as Delaware Conservationist of the Year. 

Harvey, and his proactive team, achieved a significant milestone in August 1964. They acquired a 1,200-acre tract within the Great Pocomoke Swamp, an area straddling Delaware and Maryland. A much-sought triumph stood out because the tract was home to “some fine, large specimens of the old-growth bald cypress” that had withstood centuries of lumbering, forest fires, and drainage. 

Land Acquisitions

The local community reacted with surprise and delight at the acquisition of this vast wild space. “The purchase of land for preservation in its natural state has caused rejuvenation of the tales that are told about the swamp and has brought much delight among old timers,” ‘News Journal’ columnist Constance Brown remarked soon thereafter. “The rest of us are still somewhat stunned by the impact of something so wonderful happening right in our own backyard.” 

Harvey feared that a proposed Shell Oil refinery would ruin the beauty of the salt marshes along the southern New Castle County coast. So, in 1971 he raised $1 million to buy land surrounding Shell’s intended site. This checkmate action successfully blocked access and aborted the company’s plans.  

Gov. Russell W. Peterson joined forces with Harvey several years later to fight for the 1971 Coastal Zone Act. The enabling legislation limits industrial development up and down the fragile coast.  

Wildlife in the Great Cypress Swamp: Carpenter frog, zebra swallowtail butterfly, prothonotary warbler.
Wildlife in the Great Cypress Swamp: Carpenter frog, zebra swallowtail butterfly, prothonotary warbler.

Ted Harvey took great pride in preserving nearly 10,000 sprawling acres of the Great Cypress Swamp, a landscape that stretches from Frankford to Gumboro, later known simply as the Great Swamp. The expanse bears witness to a vibrant history, including clandestine Prohibition-era bootlegging operations.  

“The conservation of the cypress swamp, along with Trussum Pond and the Delaware salt marshes, was one of the main reasons for organizing Delaware Wild Lands,” Harvey proclaimed.  

Edmund H. “Ted” Harvey passed away on April 11, 1978, at the age of 66.  

Legacy of Preservation

Harvey revolutionized Delaware’s approach to preserving today’s wilderness areas. Furthermore, his significant insights enriched, among others, the National Wildlife Federation, Delawareans for Orderly Development, and Ducks Unlimited. 

“Ted was truly an inspired and inspiring individual,” recalled Lorraine Fleming, manager of conservation and preservation of the Delaware Nature Society. “He had a knack for clutching wild areas from the jaws of destructive development.”  

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