We hope you enjoy this special Halloween edition of our presidential museum reviews. If you’d like to learn more misinformation about John Tyler, we humbly recommend this.
The walkway to the museum entrance has a warning sign urging visitors to make sure they’re back over dry land by dark.
The John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair
Great Dismal Swamp, VA
Adults: $10 | Children under 12: $5
Kate: To reach the John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair, you have to drive 60 miles off the main highway into the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge that straddles the Virginia/North Carolina border.
JD: I like that they call it a swamp instead of a “forested wetland.” It is a swamp. You can smell it for a mile before you get there. If you had to pick one word to describe it, it would be “slimy.”
Kate: If I had to pick one word, it would be “swampy.”
JD: And, appropriately, it’s the home of the only swamp monster to serve as U.S. president: John Tyler.
Kate: Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for kids under twelve. I thought that was a little pricey. But maybe it just bothered me because there wasn’t a cash register or anything—the woman selling tickets just dropped our money and let it sink down into the murky water.
JD: We were standing in like a foot of swamp water at that point.
Kate: I asked, “What about our change?” because she owed us $10 in change, but she just kept staring vacantly at the cave wall behind me.
JD: All of the museum employees looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in a long time. Which makes sense because the whole museum is underground. They call it a “swamp lair” but that’s just a fancy way of saying that it’s a really wet cave.
Kate: Did you know that they earned a LEED Platinum rating by using bioluminescent fungi for lighting? There was a placard about it in the restroom.
JD: I was too afraid to go to the restroom.
We chatted with these folks on our way into the museum. Apparently, they were looking for loved ones who’d entered and were never seen again. We promised to keep an eye open while we were in there. But in truth we were too focused on learning about the Tyler presidency to go on some search and rescue mission (which is really the Park Service’s job).
JD: More than most presidential libraries we’ve visited, the Tyler museum seemed like an extended apologia.
Kate: Tyler was the first vice president to ascend to the presidency because his predecessor died in office. And Tyler’s term was pretty unsuccessful. He was a Whig, but it quickly became clear that he disagreed with most of the Whig party’s platform. Having alienated both parties and lacking a mandate from voters, people started calling him “His Accidency.”
JD: Which was meant to be a dig, but it’s better than “His Swamp Monstrosity.”
Kate: Later he became the only former U.S. president to side with the Confederacy. He’s near the bottom on most historians’ presidential rankings.
JD: It felt like the museum was trying to distract from this by overemphasizing his handful of foreign policy successes.
Kate: They also kept bringing up how he is the only U.S. president to not have any bones.
JD: I thought that was a little braggy. What’s so great about not having bones? I like having bones.
Kate: I will say that I enjoyed the exhibit on the history of swamp monsters in America. Did you know that the first swamp monsters came over on the Mayflower, stuck to the hull like barnacles?
JD: I was more interested in the exhibit on the future of swamp monsters in America, which was surprisingly candid about their plans to re-establish dominance over what they refer to as “land monsters.”
Kate: Wait, is that us? Are we the land monsters? I thought they were talking about opossums. And I was like, “Yeah, I hate opossums, too.”
JD: Of course they had a replica Oval Office, which is de rigeur for any presidential museum. Although I liked the added touch that it was chest-deep in swampwater, with reeds and mold growing up the walls, just like the real Oval Office between the years 1840 and 1884.
Kate: See, I totally missed that room. The museum layout is really confusing, with dozens of passageways branching off in every direction. It’s almost like they want you to get lost inside their subterranean labyrinth.
Here is Kate as we began our descent to the lower levels of the museum. We really took these stairs for granted, because we didn’t realize that instead of steps, most of the lair has dark, muddy chutes that you slide down and hope for the best.
JD: We decided not to visit the cafe.
Kate: The entrance to the cafe at the John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair is a hole in the floor of the cave, with a waterlogged rope descending into the darkness. It was a little weird.
JD: Also, there were sounds coming from the hole: thick, viscous splashing, and a sound like wooden branches breaking. When I asked a museum docent what was making the sounds, he laughed awkwardly and said, “Well, it’s definitely not bones being snapped like dry matchsticks.”
Kate: So we chose not to climb down.
JD: Even though the docent told us that if we climbed down to the “dining area,” we could meet John Tyler in person!
The Gift Shop
JD: For the most part, the gift shop felt more like a lost-and-found. There were a bunch of soggy cardboard boxes filled with a humble offering of used cell phones, wallets, and keyrings, and a handwritten sign saying “make usssss an offer.”
Kate: They did have a few Tyler-themed gifts—some “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” bumper stickers, and Christmas Tree ornaments made to look like Spanish moss.
JD: They also had “Don’t Drain the Swamp” t-shirts and hoodies, but this feels misguided because considering his warm feelings for the Confederacy, Tyler is probably a Trump guy.
Kate: JD wanted to buy a locket with a swatch of Tyler’s skin but I wouldn’t let him.
JD: President Tyler sheds his skin every year or so, and the museum staff collects his sheddings and sells them in the gift shop, encased in overpriced pewter lockets. It’s a pretty unique keepsake, although I have no idea how you’d authenticate it. That could be the skin of any swamp monster. In fact, it’s kind of weird that Tyler would still be shedding his skin at age 227. Because that would mean he’s still growing larger.
Kate: I didn’t buy anything in the gift shop, but I do have a souvenir of our visit, because one of the docents passed me a note written in mud on that said “HELP ME PLEASE.”
We asked how these tunnels had been created, and the museum docent said “Oh, President Tyler clawed these out himself.’ Which would be a lot more impressive if this weren’t the 21st century, and we had machines that could dig tunnels for us.
Should I Bring My Kids?
Kate: Whether or not to bring your kids really depends on how tall they are, whether they can swim, and whether they’re afraid of the dark. Some parts of the museum are submerged in dank, dark water that comes up waist-high on an adult, so kids might only have their heads poking above water.
JD: I had to carry our four-year-old son through most of the museum, which was exhausting. Plus our daughter kept complaining that she felt something slimy drifting against her legs.
Kate: I actually thought I felt something swim against me, too, but the water was too dark to see what it was.
JD: The museum does have a “Swamp Kidz” section” but our six-year-old and four-year-old didn’t like it.
Kate: The “Dress up like President Tyler!” corner was just a moldy wooden bucket filled with greenish gelatinous mucus. Neither kid wanted to slather any of it on.
JD: I will say that our kids were intrigued by the claw marks. Throughout the museum, President Tyler has left claw marks on the walls. Some are ten or twelve feet up, but others are close enough to the ground that you can hold your own hand up to them and compare sizes.
Kate: Our kids loved doing this. Honestly, I did too. Tyler’s hands are huge, and some of the claw marks he’s gouged out of the bedrock are an inch deep. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have used some of that otherworldly reptilian strength to settle the Oregon boundary dispute!
What Would You Change?
Kate: It’s not like we dressed up in our best outfits to visit the John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair. But still, by the time we got back to our car, all of our clothes were caked in mud and duckweed. I think the Park Service should provide rubber waders before you enter the lair. Even if you had to rent them, it would be worth it.
JD: Waders would also help keep off the leeches. All four of us came out of the lair covered in leeches but didn’t realize it until we got back to the hotel and showered.
Kate: If you’re not sure whether you’re afraid of leeches, visiting the John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair is a good way to find out.
Our last shot as we exited the museum. Unfortunately, we had lost our dog Butterscotch at this point, and we never saw him again. But in the museum’s defense, they did warn us that President Tyler loves to eat dogs.
JD: John Tyler is definitely not one of my favorite U.S. presidents, and nothing about this experience improved my opinion of him. You can’t visit the museum without coming away impressed by his size, strength, longevity, and insatiable hunger. But that doesn’t change the fact that he broke his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
Kate: I felt like they made too big of a deal out of having the actual egg he’d hatched from in 1790. It just looked like a really big eggshell. There was nothing especially presidential about it.