Cumberland Island, Georgia

Wild....spectacular....pristine....forests so quiet you can hear yourself breathe...sounds of animals scurrying about in the underbrush...This is Cumberland Island, Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island.  Sixteen miles long, it is a protected national seashore with a complex ecosystem of animal and plant communities.  Inaccessible except by boat, the island is largely uninhabited.  There are a few private residences and a bed and breakfast, the Greyfield Inn.  The island is 90% owned by the National Park Service.  A passenger ferry serves the island from nearby St. Mary's, Georgia.  Day visitors and primitive camping are allowed, and no supplies are available on the island. In 1955 the National Park Service named Cumberland Island as one of the most significant natural areas in the United States.  In 1969 a developer tried to turn Cumberland Island into a commercial area.  This caused environmental activists and the Georgia Conservancy to band together and push a bill through Congress that established Cumberland Island as a national seashore.  The bill was signed by President Richard Nixon. The Carnegie family then sold the island to the federal government and with donations from the Mellon family, Cumberland Island became a national park and is currently one of the most undeveloped places in the United States.

You may be thinking..."Where have I heard of Cumberland Island?" Cumberland gained notoriety when John Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in a private and secret ceremony at the First African Baptist Church on the island on September 21, 1996.  Seeking to elude the media, they spent their honeymoon on the island at the exclusive 16-room Greyfield Inn.  The First African Baptist Church was established in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930's. The settlement around the church on the north end of the island was established for black workers. The church is one of the few remaining structures of the community.

Cumberland Island was also the setting for Stuart Woods' 1991 novel Palindrome.

Cumberland Island is an unspoiled natural area of unsurpassed beauty.  We spent eight days here anchored off the south end of the island near the Cumberland Island ranger station at the Sea Camp Dock.  The Cumberland Island ferry visited several times a day, picking up and dropping off passengers for day visits and short camping trips.  We enjoyed hiking around the island, and bicycling down dirt and sand trails. It was a rare occasion to see anyone else.  We reveled in being close to nature and away from civilization.

Miles of white sand beaches are undisturbed.  Rows of sand dunes as high as forty feet are dotted with sea oats.  Loggerhead turtles come ashore in the summer months to lay their eggs.  Many types of sea birds nest here.   

There are saltwater marshes which look like a broad plain of tall grasses interwoven with tidal creeks.  Great Egrets wade through the grass and feed at the banks of the creeks.  White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbills roost in the trees.  Fiddler crabs scurry across mud flats.  Raccoons, wild hogs, and deer come to feed on crabs, oysters and search for shellfish.  

 

 

 

As the marshland become higher and drier, the maritime forest is a dense canopy of gnarled live oaks.  Draping Spanish moss sway in the breeze. Palmetto fronds cover the forest floor. Although the breeze may be blowing in from the marsh or the beach, inland remains calm and still.....eerily so.  Deep in the forest are shadows... and you can hear animals moving about as you hike along the trail.  We were always looking up the trail ahead, hoping to get a glimpse of a wild animal.  Many times we were rewarded with turkeys running down the trail, a nine-banded armadillo or several wild hogs and their young running across the trail.

 

And, the horses... Cumberland's herds of wild horses graze openly on the marsh and forest areas of the island, feeding in inland lakes and occasionally venture onto the beaches.  They roam the island, feeding on sea oats and vegetation.  There is a no-intervention policy regarding the horses... no veterinary care, no feeding.  The horses are wild and although they are not afraid of humans, they can kick and bite and it is recommended that they not be approached.  It is estimated that there about 180 wild horses on the island.

 

The early inhabitants of the island were the Timucuan Indians, who lived on Cumberland for over 3000 years.  In 1736, the English, led by General James Oglethorpe, took possession of the island and established two small forts at each end of the island. The name "Cumberland" is thought to have come from a hunting camp set up by General Oglethorpe who copied the name from the county seat in England.

Nathaneal Greene, Revolutionary War General, acquired property on Cumberland and planned on growing indigo but mainly harvested live oak for use by the newly established US Navy. General Greene died in 1786.  Ten years later, Mrs. Greene and her second husband, Phineas Miller, completed a four-story tabby mansion and named it Dungeness.  Catherine Greene Miller lived there until her death in 1814.  Her daughter, Louisa Greene Shaw then became mistress of Dungeness.  Sea Island cotton was an important source of income and later, other crops were grown: olives, oranges, figs, dates, limes and pomegranates. Dungeness was abandoned during the Civil War and burned in 1866.

  Dungeness, as it appeared in the late 1700's (the Greene cottage).

Catherine Greene Miller, her daughter Louisa and Louise's husband James Shaw are buried in the Greene-Miller cemetery.  Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, Revolutionary War General and friend of Nathaneal Greene was also buried here.  In 1818 while sailing north along the Georgia coast, failing health prompted Lee to seek refuge at Dungeness.  There, Louisa Shaw cared for him until his death a few weeks later.  In 1913 Lee's remains were moved to Virginia where they were placed alongside those of his son Robert E. Lee.

In the mid 1880's, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie began building on Dungeness's foundations.  Thomas was the younger brother of financier Andrew Carnegie.  Thomas died two years later in 1886 leaving his wife, Lucy, and nine children. Mrs. Carnegie expanded her husband's initial acquisitions, eventually owning 90% of the island.  She initiated the renovation of Dungeness, now a 59-room Queen Anne style mansion and construction of four additional mansions built for her children which included Greyfield for Margaret Carnegie and Stafford Plantation for Lucy Carnegie in 1901.   

Dungeness, as it appeared in 1958.  (photo credit: Wikipedia) 

The 1920's saw a passing of the Guilded Age and a decline in the use of Dungeness.  The Carnegies moved out in 1925.  Dungeness burned in 1959, as a result of arson, supposedly by a disgruntled poacher who had been shot in the leg by a caretaker weeks before.  Dungeness had not been occupied for many years.  Only the ruins of the mansion remain today.

Overlooking the Brickhill River, Plum Orchard, a 24,000 sq. ft. Georgian Revival mansion built for son George Lauder Carnegie and his wife Margaret Thaw in 1898, was donated to the National Park Service by Carnegie family members in 1971.  The house is open to the public on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month.  We bicycled 14 miles round trip on dirt trails from the ranger station at the Sea Camp dock to visit.  Although we didn't get to go inside, we could see fine wood paneling and floors as we peeked in the windows.  The grounds were covered with stately live oaks. Near the end of our visit to Cumberland Island, we moved our boat from the south end of the island to the middle of the island in the Brickhill River.  We dinghied to the dock at Plum Orchard one day and hiked across the island to the Atlantic Ocean on a trail through the middle of the forest.  It was wild and beautiful, but at the end of our 4 1/2 hour hike, we were ready to get back to the boat!

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Cumberland Island.  After eight days of wilderness, it was time to head up the ICW to Jekyll Island, a short two hour, 12 mile trip.  When we were passing the north part of Cumberland Island, we saw the Little Cumberland Island Light, a sixty-foot tower restored in 1967 by the local lighthouse association.  The original lighthouse lasted only one year at this location.  The fifty foot whitewashed tower of brick, built by the famous American lighthouse builder Winslow Lewis, was disassembled brick by brick, shipped to Amelia Island and rebuilt.

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