Traveler's Checklist: Cumberland Island National Seashore
Is Cumberland Island National Seashore harboring a secret, or is it merely the victim of bad karma? Is it just coincidence that three powerful men connected with the island died in their prime? What about the three structures, each named Dungeness, that burned under mysterious circumstances?
Ginger Cox, a ranger giving the Dungeness Tour on the southern tip of the island, poses these questions with a twinkle in her eyes. Nothing tops a walking tour with an enthusiastic NPS ranger.
Cumberland Island, one of the Golden Isles in southeastern Georgia, almost on the Florida border, offers 17.5 miles of wonderfully deserted beach on the Atlantic Ocean. You'll find horseshoe crabs that look like unexploded bombs. Sandpipers scurry in and out of the crashing waves, looking for crustaceans and insects. Sweeps of marsh grasses that filter the water separate the mainland from the island.
A Little History
Timucuan Indians were the earliest inhabitants on the island, living well on shellfish, game, and plants. A Spanish mission prospered here in the 16th Century. But the English took possession of the island when General James Oglethorpe erected two forts, one at each end of the island, in the 1740s. He also built a hunting camp at the southern end and called it Dungeness, after a headland back home in England. The Oglethorpe structure probably burned and no trace of it remains.
After the Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene, a hero in the southern campaign, was given 10,000 acres as a land grant on Cumberland Island. But Greene never really enjoyed his property; he died of heat stroke at the age of 44. Catharine, Greene's widow, married Phineas Miller, who had been employed by the family, first as tutor to her children, then as manager of her Savannah plantation. Together in 1796, they built a mansion on the same Southern headland as the other structure and called it Dungeness.
They created a plantation that grew timber, olives, oranges, mangoes, and other fruit. Cotton thrived with the help of hundreds of slaves. But their idyllic life together ended when Phineas died before his 40th birthday. Catharine's daughter, Louisa Greene Shaw, continued to enhance the plantation until the second Dungeness burned down.
Slaves who had worked on the plantations came back as freemen after the Civil War. They lived at what is now known as The Settlement and built the First African Baptist Church on the north part of the island in 1893. The church, rebuilt in the 1930s, was the site of the 1996 wedding of the late-John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette; the location was chosen for its privacy and remote location.
In the 1880s, Thomas Carnegie, brother of the more famous Andrew, bought the Greene-Miller plantation for his wife, Lucy, as a winter resort. Lucy Carnegie built a "cottage," really a mansion, on the same Dungeness site.
At the height of the gilded age, guests of the Carnegies came to Cumberland Island for weeks of recreation. The ruins of the recreation area are now fenced off but we can imagine the lavish lifestyle with its swimming pool, dance hall, barber shop, hair salons, and doctor’s quarters. As Ranger Ginger relates with great drama, "The big question each morning would be 'what shall we do today?' And if you were a woman, a second question was 'What shall I wear?'"
Thomas Carnegie also died in his prime at age 43 - casualty No. 3 - leaving Lucy with nine children. Her plan was to build a house on the island for each child, but Lucy died in 1916. In 1959, the third Dungeness residence burned mysteriously. The National Park Service has reinforced the remaining ruins, but visitors can only marvel at the mansion from the outside.
According to Lucy Carnegie's will, no one could sell the island until her last child had died. Once that happened, two grandchildren tried to sell the island to developers. At around the same time, titanium was found. Turning this idyllic island into a development of second homes would have been bad enough, but mining?
In 1972, the island was acquired by the Park Service. Its first piece was the Plum Orchard mansion on the northern part of the island, a home built by Lucy Carnegie for her son George.
Most of the island is managed as a wilderness area, though 23 families still live here. Rangers offer some assistance to the residents, including serving as EMTs. Ranger Ginger said that "a number of elderly residents have Do not resuscitate orders because they want to die on the island."
All this human habitation has left many nonnative species including hogs, cows, and horses. The park held public comments about what should be done with these animals.
According to Ranger Ginger, "people said 'shoot the hogs, contain the cows, but keep the horses.'" Today about 200 horses, descendants of those left by the Carnegies, roam the island. Though not indigenous, the horses are historically important. The Park Service doesn't manage the horses nor provide them with veterinary care. They're free to roam and are not that difficult to see.
Other animals have come on Cumberland Island. Coyotes managed to swim to the island, taking advantage of land that pops up at low tide. The armadillo is another new resident.
Visiting Cumberland Island
* Make your ferry reservations early, up to six months in advance. You need to call the concessioner and give all the details over the phone. They then send you a bill that you pay by check - no credit cards, no internet reservations. You can buy a ticket on the day of your visit if there are spaces on the ferry and on the island. The number of visitors on the island is limited. The ferry ticket is $17 for an adult.
* Plan to spend the whole day on the island because there's a lot to see. The first ferry ride goes out at 9 a.m. The trip takes about 45 minutes.
* Leave enough time to take in the Visitor Center at the historic downtown St. Marys Waterfront before you board the ferry. The National Seashore Visitor Center on the mainland opens at 8 a.m. but will be closed by the time you return from the island.
* Bring your binoculars and ask for a bird list at the Visitor Center. The island boasts more than 335 species of birds. On a late fall day, I identified white ibis, laughing gulls, and tri-colored herons from the ferry. On the island, pied-billed grebe, turkey vulture, eastern meadowlark, tree swallow, sand pipers were easy to spot. While taking the ranger tour, a bald eagle chased an osprey overhead.
* Don't miss the first orientation given before you board the ferry. The ranger emphasizes the rules of the island -- You can collect empty sea shells and sharks teeth but nothing else. Horses have the right of way. Don’t feed any wildlife. Ticks are part of southeastern Georgia life, so check yourself in the evening. You can go swimming but be careful of rip tides.
* Decide where you need to disembark the ferry. Get off at the first stop at the Dungeness Dock for the ranger talk. This is where you'll see the Dungeness ruins. You don't need to go with a ranger but she'll point out so much that you might miss on your own.
* If you're camping, you need to get off at the second dock at Sea Camp where you'll be assigned your campsite. You can also rent bikes at the second stop.
* Be prepared to walk. The island is an easy place to walk with flat wide trails. Sneakers are fine; you don't need boots.
* When walking toward the beach, stay on the trail to protect the dunes. Striped poles show you the cross trails so you don’t walk on the dunes.
* Visit the Greene-Miller Cemetery. Catharine Miller, her daughter, and son-in-law are among those buried here.
* To see the upper part of the island, you need to camp. Sea Camp, closest to the dock, offers cold showers, treated water, and picnic tables. Stafford Campsites requires more walking and has the same amenities except for picnic tables. The other three backcountry campsites further north have no facilities. You need to backpack to the upper campsites to be able to reasonably walk to the First African Baptist Church. Sea Camp is $4 a night, the backcountry campgrounds are $2. Reservations are strongly encouraged and can be made up to six months in advance.
* For a luxurious and expensive experience, stay at the Greyfield Inn, built in 1900. Lucy Carnegie built Greyfield for her daughter, Margaret. The mansion was converted to an inn during 1962 by her daughter. The family still oversees the daily operations.
* On the second and fourth Sundays, take a ferry ride to the northern part of the island to tour Plum Orchard.
* Leave your pets at home. They're not allowed on the ferry or in the campgrounds
* Pack it in, pack it out. There are no garbage cans on the island or any place to buy supplies. Bring food, water, and garbage bags.
* Visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum, on the mainland in St. Marys. The museum focuses on the history of the island from the Timucuan Indians to the Gilded Age.
* Read Endangered Species by Nevada Barr, a mystery set on the island. Ms. Barr gets the feel and management of the island just right and her mysteries are always an entertaining read.
Seeing the Northern Part of the Island
Most visitors, whether they come for the day or camp at Sea Camp, only see the southern part of Cumberland Island, around the Dungeness ruins. To explore the northern section, you must backpack into primitive sites, ride a bicycle on the main road, or stay at the Greyfield Inn. But this may change with the new transportation plan.
In December 2004, Congress directed the Park Service to start motorized visitor access to historic sites located at the north end of Cumberland Island. The park envisions a five- to six-hour bus tour offered twice a day to Plum Orchard and the First African Baptist Church, for about 20 people a day. Day hikers will be allowed to leave the tours at only two locations, Plum Orchard and The Settlement. The bus trips might start in January.
The tour will cost $15 per person and be run by the Park Service. This transportation plan is not without its controversy. Much of the northern part of the island is a wilderness area, though that doesn't include the main road. Some people don’t want more vehicles on the island.
Ferry reservations: Cumberland Queen, P.O. Box 7230, St. Marys, GA 31558
Endangered Species, by Nevada Barr. First published in 1997, available as a Berkley mass-market edition. 2008.
By the Numbers: Cumberland Island National Seashore by Bob Janiskee