Location: St Marys, Georgia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The largest and southern most barrier island in Georgia, Cumberland Island National Seashore encompasses nearly all of the island along with the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area. The island contains diverse ecosystems including ocean beaches, live oak maritime, and salt water marshes with 23 distinct ecosystems. It is a favorite stopover for many migratory birds. The history of the island begins with seasonal use by native Americans and a Spanish mission for over 100 years. James Ogelthorpe established two forts on the island in 1736 and built a hunting lodge that he called Dungeness. The next Dungeness was envisioned by Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene when he acquired the island following the war with plans to harvest the live oak trees for sale in Europe to recoup his debts from the war. He died before building the house and his widow completed a four story tabby mansion in 1803. The mansion was used as a British headquarters during the War of 1812, forcing the family to the upper floors, and lasted until the Civil War when it burned in 1866. By 1830, Robert Stafford had acquired over 5000 acres of the Greene property, including Dungeness, and built his own plantation home on the island. Stafford’s plantation grew primarily sea island cotton up until the Civil War using slave labor. In the 1880s the property was bought by Thomas Carnegie, brother of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie as the winter estate for his wife Lucy and their children. The 59 room mansion, the third Dungeness, was completed by Lucy in 1886 following Thomas’ death. She raised all of her children on the island which was completely self sufficient with extensive farms, herds, ice house, power plant, and over 200 workers. The grounds were extensively landscaped and visitors were treated to a lavish lifestyle including a large recreation building with a gymnasium, indoor pool, pool room, and other indoor activities. Along with hunting, boating, fishing, and enjoying the gardens, Dungeness was a favorite location for the rich and famous. Lucy also built homes for her children on the island which were Greyfield for Margaret Carnegie, Plum Orchard for George Lauder Carnegie, and Stafford Plantation. After Lucy died, the Carnegies moved out of Dungeness in 1925, which was abandoned until it burned spectacularly in 1959. Today only the ruins of the mansion and surrounding grounds, buildings, and the worker’s village remain. Of the homes for the children, Plum Orchard is open to the public.
1) The Visitor Center in St Marys is a nice two story building with the museum on the second floor. The museum is very small and disappointing. I would have thought there would have been more about the history of the island, but there are just a couple of exhibits about the natural ecosystems that exist on the island.
2) The ferry ride takes about 45 minutes, which is nice except for the price ($20 per person). You get a good view of the St Marys river and salt marshes along the river. In the fall the ferry schedule is limited to only two departure times, 9 and 11:45 in the morning. With this schedule, everyone waits until the 4:45 return time from the island which means the return trip on the ferry can get very crowded. During the summer you would have to have reservations.
3) While I was disappointed in the Visitor Center on the mainland, the museum in the Ice House was all I could have expected. There is a lot of information about all the owners of the island including the Timucuan Indians, Nathaniel Greene, Robert Stafford, and Lucy Carnegie. Don’t miss it if you are interested in the history of the island.
4) The wild horses on the island are almost tame, although I would not trust them since they are still wild. You can get very close to them while they are feeding in the mowed areas around the docks and ruins.
5) The Dungeness ruins are VERY impressive. It is too bad that the mansion was burned in 1959, as it would have been even more impressive, but it was still awesome!!
6) There is a tabby house that was used for a grounds office next to the mansion that was built out of tabby from the time of Nathaniel Greene.
7) The ruins of the recreational building are also impressive, both in size and what they used it for. You can still see the remains of the swimming pool and multiple rooms.
8) If you love miles of beach without any houses, hotels, restaurants, shops and nothing but the surf and dunes, then Cumberland Island National Seashore is for you. Except for some industrial structures at Fernadino Beach for to the south, you can’t see any man made structures in any direction. Taking the time to watch the seagulls and pelicans feeding just off the beach is a great experience.
9) The trail from the beach to the Sea Camp dock goes through the Sea Camp Campground, which is situated in a young live oak forest and continuous palmetto undergrowth. The forest is amazing with the intertwining branches and the short trails cut through the palmetto to each small campsite would completely separate each camper from their neighbor. During the summer, the island environment could be stifling, but in November, it was very comfortable.
10) The Park Ranger talk was interesting, but I had already discovered most of the history of the island that this talk was all about. I even caught the Ranger giving information that conflicted with I remember reading in the museum.
11) In November, the 4:45 departure from the island is late in the afternoon. However, you will get the opportunity to watch the sunset over the water of the river and if you are lucky enough, as we were, with some high clouds, it can be spectacular.