Visiting Cumberland Island National Park
Visiting this eighteen mile long, three mile wide barrier island off the coast of Georgia is something you MUST plan in advance. The only way to access the island is by private boat or by Ferry operated from St. Marys, GA. There are two departure times and two return times available. We took the earliest and latest since we had booked an all day tour with Lands and Legacies, a private provider, authorized by the National park system to operate tours on the island. It is not necessary to hire a guided tour to enjoy the beauty of this island, but we recommend it to first time visitors.
Biking and walking can be strenuous as there is one very narrow, dirt road that must be shared. Paths to the beach and the ruins of Dungeness are easily accessible by foot or bike from the ferry dock, but visiting Plum Orchard Mansion and the Settlement Church require transportation.
Pack water and food for the day as there are no public restaurants, vending machines or concession stands. Water bottles may be refilled at the ranger station near the ferry dock and bathrooms are also located there. You may take bicycles, beach chairs and toys onto the ferry. Please call ahead with specific inquiries.
Lands and Legacies
We boarded an air conditioned mini van with five other passengers and set off to see the island. The first stop was Brickhill Bluff, which was the location of Ft. William, an English fort built in the 1700’s. There are no visible remains of the fort, but the view is worth the trip.
The distance to this point from Seacamp, which is where we started our tour, is about ten miles. Ten, bumpy miles on a dirt road. I was beginning to question the wisdom of choosing this tour, but, the alternative is to hike it, or arrive via private boat if you want to see the north end of the island.
Our tour guide filled the driving time (apx. 50 minutes to one hour) with stories of native inhabitants, missions and colonial settlements, wild horses, the original Dungeness hunting lodge, two subsequent homes with the same name, plantation life, and eventually island ownership and the construction of private homes by Cumberland’s most famous residents, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. I have done my best to recap highlights from our tour, but because of the island’s very long and detailed history, I have used documents available on the internet to verify dates, names, and time frames to the best of my ability and understanding.
At times, the various story lines became entangled and seemed somewhat embellished with hearsay, but it is a story you will want to follow, so listen closely and ask questions when you get lost. The scenery in route to the north end is thick with forest, marshes and numerous sightings of wild horses. Even when my mind wandered, my eyes saw clearly what makes this place special.
Also on the north end, and our second stop of the tour, is The First African Baptist church established in 1893. It is the only remaining structure from the black settlement that existed here during the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s.
On September 21, 1996 John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette walked through these doors as husband and wife, propelling this little church into a national spotlight.
After riding down the same bumpy road that the couple and their guest took, I cannot imagine how that day came about or who thought this church was the best place for a Kennedy wedding. Personally, I think there are several more beautiful locations for a wedding on this island. But, this is by far the most secluded. When the burden of fame is as great as his was, I suppose it is understandable that he would go to any lengths to protect the most special moment of his life and give his bride the wedding of her dreams.
The doors were painted red at the time of the Kennedy wedding but the interior was the same as today.
Our group of seven made the space feel very small. The church is maintained by individuals who own property on Cumberland island and is occasionally used for family services.
The next stop on the tour was Plum Orchard. The home was built by Lucy Carnegie for her son George and his new bride Margaret Thaw, in 1898. Lucy had gifted $10,000 to the couple to build the home, but Margaret thought it was too small and a few years later she added the wings on the left and right of the main house. She was 21 years old at the time.
The lawn of this 22,000 sf mansion is home to graceful oak trees and wandering wild horses. How often can you say that you sat having lunch under a 300 year old oak tree watching the decedents of horses abandoned by Spanish settlers nearly 500 years ago.
We enjoyed the tour of the interior of the home so much that I almost forgot to take pictures. I did get this one, of the good times bell. Note the engraving Carnegie – Plum Orchard – October 6, 1898 – Ring in Joyous Remembrance .
The Carnegies spared no expense for convenience and had an elevator, an ice maker, an indoor swimming pool and a squash court to make life pleasant for their many guests.
Several Tiffany lamps adorn the home, but the ones that caught my eye were a pair of tortoise shell inspired lamps hanging over the piano in the gun room. I appreciated the detail of the underside almost as much as the golden glow of the outside.
Worth mentioning is that there are two fully equipped apartments inside the home to house park volunteers who provide docent services at appointed times during the day. Volunteers may request this position for several weeks, or even several months. The tour is free, but call ahead to make sure the house will be open for your visit. Plum Orchard is located about 8 miles from Seacamp, where the Ferry docks, and unless you are on the Land and Legacies tour, you will have to make your way there on foot or by bike. Bike rentals are available for $14 per day at the Ranger Station, which is the first stop after leaving the Ferry.
Our tour of Plum Orchard was lead by the Land and Legacies guide and was included in our full day rate.
A Tale of Three Homes
The ruins of Dungeness were not on the agenda for our tour, but we must have gotten lucky, or possibly it is a new addition. Either way, it was one of the highlights of my day, as I am a sucker for beautiful ruins, and these are pretty spectacular.
The first establishment at Dungeness, was a hunting lodge, built by James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe was a British soldier and founder of the colony of Georgia. He built a fort (to defend Georgia against Spanish invasions) at the north end of the island and the lodge on the south end around 1736. He borrowed the name Dungeness from a city in England and I wonder if there was a sentimental connection, or did Cumberland Island simply resemble Dungeness at that time.
Oglethorpe is credited with establishing the Georgia colony in 1733. The Spanish held nearby Florida neighbor, St. Augustine. After defeating the Spanish in the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742 Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743 and lived the remainder of his life in Cranham. He died at the age of 88. I cannot find any reference to suggest that he ever returned to Cumberland Island.
The second home, also named Dungeness was built by the widow of General Nathaniel Greene. Greene had been awarded the land, along with another parcel called Mulberry Grove along the Savannah river for his years of service in the Revolutionary war. He worked the plantation at Mulberry Grove and never lived at Dungeness. Nathaniel Greene died in 1786 at the age of 44. His 32 year old widow, Catherine was left with a mountain of debt and five children.
Phineas Miller, tutor to the Greene children took on the role of plantation manager. It is widely speculated that Catherine and Phineas had an affair during her marriage to Nathaniel Greene. Catherine and Phineas were married in 1796. The delay in marriage was most likely because Catherine would have to forfeit any money due her husband from the U.S. Government should she remarry. It took six long years and a lot of work on her part to convince Congress of the reimbursement monies owed her husband. She was awarded $47,000 in 1792 by President George Washington who had always been especially close with Catherine. Two of her children were named after George and Martha.
Catherine and Phineas left Mulberry and built a home at Dungeness, where they were successful operating a plantation. Phineas died in 1803 at 39 years of age. Catherine remained at Dungeness until her death in 1814. She was 60 years old.
Catherine’s daughter, Louisa Green Shaw controlled the home and property until her death in 1831, when it passed to her nephew. Union officers used the plantation as a headquarters during the Civil War and later it was stripped and left abandoned. The second Dungeness burned down in 1866.
Catherine is buried in the Green-Miller cemetery on the estate grounds. We found it interesting that there is no grave (at least not a marked one) for Phineas. I am still trying to find an answer to that question.
As second in command to George Washington, Nathaniel Greene’s remains have a place of honor in Johnson Square, located in Savannah, Georgia.
Fun fact: Eli Whitney came to tutor the Greene children in 1792 and it is said that Catherine assisted with the invention of the cotton gin. There is some evidence of that being the case, but she was never officially given credit. Much has been written about this beautiful, seductive and fascinating woman. For sure, she lived life!
In 1881 Thomas Carnegie bought 1,800 acres of land on Cumberland Island from General W.G.M. Davis and one year later he and a business partner acquired the old Stafford plantation. This was the gilded age, and America’s millionaires flocked to the South, creating Social Clubs for the upper class. Lucy Carnegie wanted Cumberland Island as her own. Thomas and Lucy built their 50,000+ sf mansion and kept the historic name Dungeness, making it the third and final home to bear the name. The family lived a lavish lifestyle, entertaining wealthy guests for weeks at a time on their island playground.
Thomas Carnegie died in 1886 at the age of 43, and Lucy and their nine children remained at the estate as full time residents. She acquired more property on Cumberland and at one point controlled nearly 90% of the island. Lucy died in 1913 and the home was abandoned in 1929. Thomas and Lucy are buried in the family cemetery on the island. All that remains of this once grand estate are these lovely ruins of Dungeness. The home mysteriously burned down in 1959.
I borrowed this picture from Wikipedia. It was taken just one year before the house burned. When you walk the grounds, you will see evidence of what was once an outdoor pool, a recreation area and gentlemen’s quarters (where Lucy’s sons entertained their lady friends)
The estate was fairly self-sufficient, with an ice house, vegetable gardens, livestock and poultry.
Lucy and her nine children on the steps of Dungeness.
In addition to Plum Orchard and Dungeness, Lucy also built the Greyfield House in 1901 as a wedding present to her daughter Margaret. The Greyfield Inn is currently operated by Carnegie decedents as a bed and breakfast and is the only accommodations on the island. Nightly rates for the Inn, including three meals per day begin at $525 per night with a two night minimum. For a bit more, you will not have to share a bath. Unfortunately, the Inn is not on the tour. I was hoping for at least a drive by, but it was not to be.
Another historic structure on the island is the Stafford House. The Stafford House takes its name from Robert Stafford who was born on the island in 1790. He operated a cotton plantation there in the 1800’s and at one time owned most of the island. All that remains today of the original Stafford plantation is a series of chimneys that mark the location of the homes of his slaves.
The Carnegie family bought the property from the heirs of Robert Stafford and built a home for their son William. The original house burned, but was rebuilt by William. It is presently owned privately, but will eventually become a part of the National Park as per an agreement with Carnegie descendants. Where there was once cotton fields and even at one time a golf course, is a runway for private planes that frequent the island.
Cumberland Island Beach was not part of our tour and is about a thirty minute round trip walk from the Ferry dock. We were discouraged by our guide when she suggested that we might miss the return ferry to St. Marys if we made the attempt, so we did not and it is a huge regret. The last ferry leaves promptly at 4:45, and you really don’t want to miss it, but it might be worth taking the chance for a view like this.
The measure of a place, for me, is when I want to know more. A day trip to Cumberland Island did that for me. I have enjoyed sifting through and piecing the story together that we heard on our tour and I have developed a better understanding of the people who are a part of the Island’s history and legacy. It has given me a greater appreciation of what makes this place truly special and the ferocity with which it is protected.
Note: Cumberland Island was declared a National Park in 1972 by President Richard Nixon.
If You Go
Check in at St. Marys by 8:00 to board the ferry which departs at 9:00
Ferry Ride Round Trip $28 pp
Lands and Legacies Tour $45 pp
Park Entrance Fee $10 pp