Welcome to my first blog of 2018 and thanks for your likes and comments on last weeks Reflections and Resolutions post. For the next few weeks we head back to the southeast to Georgia and Florida to complete our #Parksgiving17 adventure. At the end of January, I’ll take you on the trail to the southwest of the United States for several exciting and profound posts, I’m saying that now before we’ve even left home! Oh well, we’ll see what the road brings to us.
Of all our visits to national parks, historic sites and monuments during our stay, this one took the most planning because it requires advanced reservations for both the ferry ride (there is a 300 visitor limit per day) and the optional guided tour. Cumberland Island is accessible by a ferry that runs only a couple of times each day, once in the morning and once in the later afternoon. If you miss it, you’re SOL! In addition, there are no concessions on the Island such as food and water, visitors need to bring both to have an enjoyable experience. So thanks to our Thanksgiving week leader and National Park enthusiast, we were well prepared.
The Cumberland Island National Seashore was preserved by an act of Congress in 1972 after lots of lobbying and effort by the Sierra Club and Georgia Conservancy. This National Seashore encompasses most of Cumberland Island, a barrier island a few miles off the coast of Georgia. I say most because there are some parts of Cumberland Island that are still under private ownership, more on that later. The Seashore is administered by the National Park Service and maintains a visitor center on the mainland in St. Marys, Georgia where visitors catch the ferry.
We arrived early for our all day trip to Cumberland Island. After checking in at the visitor center, getting our tickets and checking out the displays, we had some time to wander around the waterfront of the St. Marys River. There was a lot of construction and repair work going on that was caused by Hurricane Irma in September. In fact, the ferry boarding was moved to a temporary dock about 1/5 mile from the Visitors Center. Here are some photos from my waterfront roaming.
Soon it was time to head to the ferry dock for our 30 minute trip to Cumberland Island. As we waited for the briefing by the Park Ranger, Daniel, our son-in-law and park enthusiast, chatted up the Ranger.
After the safety briefing, we boarded the ferry that was our lifeline between the mainland and Cumberland Island.
Soon we were on our way, leaving St. Marys behind and looking forward to the daylong adventure.
While most of the day was overcast with a few intermittent showers, the temperature was pleasant. Upon arriving and disembarking, we were greeted by these signs and the location where we met our guide and van driver for the day.
After a short briefing on our plan for the day and a visit to the restrooms, we piled into the 15 passenger van and started down the one main road on the Island, if one could call it a road! It was more of a dirt path carved through the forest.
As we traveled along the bumpy, narrow road to our first destination, the First Settlement, our guide provided a brief history of Cumberland Island. The Island first inhabitants were the indigenous Timucua peoples who came to the island about 4000 years ago and thrived until the arrival of the first European colonial settlers around 1550. Battles between the British, French, and Spanish took its tole until around 1730 when James Oglethrope, the future founder of the State if Georgia, arrived on the scene. He built a hunting lodge and later two forts, one on the south and one on the north, to protect against Spanish invasion. After the threats of invasion passed the forts were abandoned. Enter the plantation era that began when Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene acquired most of the southern part of the island in a business deal. After he died, his widow married Phineas Miller (no relation!) and built a large mansion out of tabby (a type of concrete made from oyster shells) and named it Dungeness. They maintained a cotton plantation that produced the very high quality Sea Island cotton. In addition, they also raised indigo, rice and other food crops. Prior to the Civil War, Robert Stafford was also a prominent plantation owner on the Island during this time.
During the period of Reconstruction after the devastation of the Civil War, freed slaves and speculators tried to make a living on the Island. This continued until the 1880’s when the Estate era began as the Carnegie family began to accumulate land on the Island. They built a new mansion on the site of Dungeness. This Scottish style mansion contained 59 rooms with a swimming pool, golf course, and many other outbuildings. After the 1929 crash, Dungeness remained empty for about 30 years until a fire (believed to be started by an arsonist) destroyed most of the house. The ruins are now owned by the National Park Service as a historic site. Here are a few photos of Dungeness.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, heirs to the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Chandler fortunes who owned Island property, began to gift and sell parts of Cumberland Island to preservation groups and the National Park Service. There are still about 30 permanent residents on the Island and legacy owners with property rights. During our tour, there were a couple of small airplanes on a grass field in the middle of the Island that brought owners and family members for the Thanksgiving holiday. While 90% of Cumberland Island is currently preserved as National Seashore and Wilderness, eventually the National Park Service will own nearly 100%.
Our first main stop on our tour was at The Settlement and at the First African Baptist Church on the north end of the Island. This well preserved church was the scene of a very famous wedding on September 21, 1996. Guess! It was the wedding of John Kennedy, Jr. to Carolyn Bessette. Before the rest of the story and to provide context, here are photos of the church.
The date and location of this famous wedding was kept secret by the 40 attendees and as well as the staff of the private, exclusive Greyfield Inn located on the southern tip of the Island. Now consider this, the 20 mile trip from the south to the north would take a minimum of an hour. Also consider this church is small, has 11 wooden pews and no air conditioning. In addition, it’s hot and humid outside and there isn’t anywhere nearby to take refuge. And the bride was late on top of it all! After the wedding, the lone photographer took photos of the couple and it was discovered that the wedding party and all the guests had departed for Greyfield Inn leaving the bride and groom without transportation! They had to settle for a ride in a ranger’s dusty truck, the groom in a tuxedo and she in a very expensive, designer gown! The biologist who lives next to the church in The Settlement is said to have watched the proceedings drinking a beer and eating popcorn! She’s still around, here are photos of her property.
During our drive, here are some examples of the scenery we saw.
Our next stop was at the Plum Orchard estate about mid island. This mansion was built and occupied by members of the Carnegie family, now in the hands of the National Park Service. After a relaxing lunch, we took a tour of the house and saw how the Carnegie steel fortune was spent. On our tour, the guide offered any piano players an opportunity to play the baby grand in what was once the gun room. We were also shown the swimming pool, a rarity in those days, that had to be abandoned because it started to leak into the basement!
As we traveled around the Island, we did see some wildlife such as deer but no rattlesnakes that are prevalent on the Island. We did see many of the feral horses said to be left from the Spanish occupation. Here’s a couple of photos of the horses that are popular with tourists.
At the end of the guided tour, we waited for the ferry to take us back to St. Marys. If visitors miss the boat (pun intended!) they have to charter a private boat or spend the night under the stars with the bugs and the snakes, not a pleasant thought. All in all, it was a good day. I recommend the guided tour to get the most from the experience. Thus ends our tour of the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Next up, Fort Frederica.
Until next week, travel safe.