Cumberland Island National Seashore Turning 40

The Plum Orchard Mansion on Cumberland Island has been wonderfully restored. NPS photo.

Another birthday cake soon will be needed for the National Park System, which on October 23 celebrates the 40th anniversary of Cumberland Island National Seashore's addition to the system.

When President Nixon signed the legislation that created the seashore off the coast of Georgia, it culminated what Park Service officials say 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."

The process of making the island a national seashore went back another 10 years, to 1962 "when Florence, the last surviving child of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie died," seashore officials note. "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 it off for a profit, 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."

Of course, signing legislation is one thing, coming up with the money to purchase the island from the Carnegies was another. Fortunately, the Mellon Foundation stepped up to provide the bulk of the funds to the newly created National Park Foundation, which negotiated acquisition with most of the major land owners.

After the bill’s enactment, the National Park Service arrived on the island in late 1972. And that staff was immediately confronted by a number of challenges, as the seashore history points out:

One of the many challenges facing the new staff was the many historic structures on the island. Most were left over from the gilded age period when the Carnegie's and their children lived on the island. Some of the structures were in fair condition but many were in an advanced state of decay. So began a two-decade-long process of stabilizing and rehabilitating structures.

Cultural resource specialists determined that some buildings, while possessing an exterior that looked to be in good condition, often the foundations or interiors had suffered extensive damage and the buildings could not be saved.

By far the greatest challenge in saving cultural resources was that of Plum Orchard Mansion. The 20,000+ square-foot-house had been built as a wedding present for George and Margaret Thaw Carnegie in 1898. Although the Georgian mansion was stabilized, it was never fully rehabilitated until the turn of the 21st century. From 2000 through 2006 the National Park Service painstakingly brought back to its former grandeur.

Today, Plum Orchard tells the story of those who lived and worked on Cumberland Island in a time long ago.

Caring for historic structures did not stop with the restoration of Plum Orchard; currently the park cares for nearly 80 historic structures. 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. That collection was housed on the island in a substandard facility until 2000 when it was moved to an approved museum storage facility on the mainland to ensure those objects would be properly cared for.

The park’s 1972 enabling legislation called on the National Park Service to develop a wilderness recommendation to Congress. Acting on that recommendation, legislation was passed in 1982 that designated over 8,800 acres of the island’s north end as Wilderness. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

Alternate Text
The interior of the First African Baptist Church, one of the Park Service's restoration projects. NPS photo.

Today, over 9,886 acres are designated as Wilderness on Cumberland Island. In 1972 when the National Park Service assumed the management of Cumberland Island, most of the island was in a natural state.

As with many parks, fire was a major concern to managers. A massive fire on the north end of the Island in 1981 that burned 1,700 acres steered managers towards a suppression policy for wildland fires on the island. For many years, this was in keeping with national policies towards fire management.

However, fire management knowledge has grown and it is now known that many ecosystems need fire to maintain a healthy balance. The park has begun a new Fire Management Plan that will seek to bring back fire into the natural environment.

Another key feature of natural resource management is protecting threatened and endangered species. For Cumberland Island, nesting sea turtles were an important resource that warranted special attention. For the last 20 years the park staff has worked closely with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor, protect, and support the successful nesting of sea turtles on the island.

Feral animals have also been a concern to Park Service managers. When the National Park Service staff arrived on Cumberland Island in 1972, three remaining forms of livestock (cows, pigs and horses) roamed free on the island. By the 1980s, the cows had been removed. Feral hog control has resulted in dramatic reduction of the population. However it is unlikely they will be eradicated. Feral horses have been a greater challenge. Beloved by visitors, they are perhaps the most popular feature to the island, but do have a detrimental effect on the island’s vegetation.

Visitors first began arriving by ferry to Cumberland Island in late 1974. The 1984 General Management Plan limited daily visitation to 300 persons per day. The visitor limit and the remoteness of the island has kept visitation to the island low by National Park Service standards. There were just fewer than 40,000 visitors to the Island in 2011.

Still, visitors to Cumberland Island enjoy a variety of activities, including swimming, biking, camping, hiking, fishing, observing wildlife and taking in the rich historical sites of the island. With much of the island designated wilderness, backpacking and primitive camping are also very popular. Nearly every day the park has been in operation, the popular Footsteps Walk has been given by the park’s interpretive rangers.

The trip aboard the concession ferry to the seashore can be a relaxing experience for visitors who often get the treat of observing marine life along the way. Recently, the park has set a course for the use of expired reserved estates by developing the Former Reserved Properties Management Plan and finalizing it in July 2012.

Another major step for the seashore was the beginning of the Lands and Legacies Tours. This rugged van trip to the historic sites on the north end of the island was initiated as a result of federal legislation, which required the tours and redefined the wilderness boundaries. In the first year of operation over 3,900 visitors have taken the trip and given the experience high marks.

What the next 40 years will bring to Cumberland Island is impossible to determine. But some important steps are in the works that may reveal how the seashore will be managed in the near future.

Governor Sonny Perdue selected Cumberland Island National Seashore as Georgia’s site to be represented on America’s Beautiful National Park’s Quarter program. The new quarter will be minted in 2018.

The park will also develop a new Foundation Statement that will serve to update the 1984 General Management Plan and guide future planning.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is prized by those who love its history, natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation. One of the most often heard comments by visitors is a profound love for the island.

Cumberland Island is the largest barrier island off the coast of Georgia, encompassing more than 36,000 acres of maritime forests, salt marsh and beaches. The island is also home to over 9,800 acres of congressionally designated wilderness. The island’s natural and cultural resources provide a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife and offer a glimpse into the long history of coastal Georgia.

The seashore is accessible by foot-only, passenger ferry from the historic community of St. Marys, Georgia, and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.