Cumberland Island National Seashore recently (October 23) celebrated its 40th anniversary.
When President Richard Nixon signed federal legislation creating the national seashore off the coast of Georgia in October 1972, it culminated what Park Service officials said was “a long and complex process of obtaining support from various individuals and groups to make Georgia’s largest barrier island one of America’s national parks, reports nationalparkstraveler.com.”
Before the National Park Service acquired most of the island for a national seashore, 90 percent of it was the private domain of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) and their descendants. The Carnegies bought the island in the 1880s and built five mansions on it during the next two decades. The most superb house was the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness on the island’s south end.
Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors.
We stopped during our visit to the island in early December 2007 to gaze at the tall chimneys, solid brick walls, and other stark remains of the old mansion.
After pausing at an old cemetery where war hero, “Light Horse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) was interred following his death on the island in 1818, we further explored the island. Continuing the 3 ½-mile Dungeness Trail as it loops around the island’s southern tip, we walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds including the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern.
On several occasions we encountered many of the 250 feral horses that roam the island, descendants of steeds the Carnegies released during their heyday. Beloved by visitors, they are perhaps the most popular feature to the island, but do have a detrimental effect on the island’s fragile vegetation.
We saw in Cumberland what the Native American inhabitants glimpsed thousands of years ago, as they roamed the densely wooded, 18-mile-long isle of land hunting and fishing.
We saw what enchanted Spanish missionaries saw in 1566. And what endeared the British, who built forts in the early 1700s to protect their fledgling Georgia colony. And what captivated industrialist Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, who purchased large swaths of the island in the 1880s and built lavish winter retreats.
And what bewitched John F. Kennedy Jr., who married Carolyn Bessette at a tiny African-American church near the island’s north end.
After meandering lazily along the wide, sandy, shell-flecked beach, we slowly made our way to Sea Camp dock where we re-boarded the passenger ferry for a sunset cruise back to the mainland (St. Marys, Georgia).
We spent an awesome six hours on the island and vowed to return!
The process of making the island a national seashore went back to 1962 “when Florence, the last surviving child of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie died,” seashore officials note, reports nationalparkstraveler.com.
“With her death, the trust established by Lucy Carnegie ended, allowing lands owned by the Carnegie heirs to be sold.”
The surviving Carnegies had differing visions for what to do with the island: some wanted to sell to a real estate developer; others wanted it to become a national park.
“Those wanting to sell their land did so to coastal developer Charles Fraser, who had already realized development success on Hilton Head Island,” according to seashore accounts.
“Those seeking to preserve the island sought the assistance of Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. With guidance from former Secretary Udall, family members united by Joe Graves created a vision for the island. Congressman Bill Stuckey, who represented southeast coastal Georgia, began the long and delicate process of creating a bill able to pass both the House and Senate.”
The park currently cares for nearly 80 historic structures including the restored Plum Orchard. Nearly 60 of these historic structures have been rehabilitated. In addition to caring for historic structures, the park also cares for over 207,000 artifacts in its collection.
Did You Know?
Cumberland Island provides important habitat for a number of important species including shore birds such as American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Wilson’s Plovers. The island is an important stopover point for migrating birds on the transatlantic migratory flyway.
Please Note: This is part one of a 2-part series on Cumberland Island National Seashore
The beach is the draw—
17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.
You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul