Cumberland Island revisited

Cumberland Island is a favorite stop; it’s convenient to the ICW if we travel inside, and if we travel offshore, St. Mary’s Inlet is always usable, given that it’s the access for King’s Bay Naval Base, east coast base of the Ohio class submarines. When transiting the ICW, the route passes directly east of the base. It’s an interesting cruise to see the base from the water, subs are usually visible within the basin, and the base itself is visible from miles offshore via the lighted towers located on corners of the large sub “garages” on the base. There are full time patrol boats stationed by the exclusion zone; there’s no chance of wandering off course into the base!


Cumberland Island is just 2 miles to the east. There is a slough of deep water that extends from the main ship channel northward along the inland shore of the island, providing an excellent anchorage and easy access to the island, part of the National Park System. Cumberland is one of the largest east coast barrier islands, and has a storied history dating back millennia. The most notable part of the Island’s history is probably the Carnegie era, dating from about 1880 to the mid-1950’s. The history surrounding the Carnegie influence is fascinating, particularly when it’s considered in context with the broader picture of what was happening during that time. A part of the “Gilded Age” of industrial development, land on Cumberland was acquired by Thomas (brother to Andrew) and Lucy Coleman Carnegie around 1880, and in 1884 they began construction on Dungeness on the south part of the island on the ruins of Nathaniel Greene’s mansion of the same name. Thomas never lived to see it completed. Upon his death, Lucy continued to live at Dungeness and added to the structure to include 37,000 sq. ft., land holdings, as well as building “cottages” for her children elsewhere on the island.

Plum Orchard, 8 miles to the north, was built for son George and his new wife. Completed in 1896,  subsequent additions over 10 years expanded the cottage to 24,000 sq. ft. Yes, they called them ‘cottages’!  Plum Orchard remained in the family until around the 1960’s. The Carnegie’s retained up to 200 employees to service their island and homes; the south end of the island near Dungeness contained a diary barn, gardens, livestock, an electric power house,  ice plant, water plant, laundry, dormitories, and a large kitchen to prepare food for the staff. The dock served the Carnegie yacht Missou and the adjacent house was home to the yacht’s captain and his family during stays on the island. The family would travel by yacht or rail to reach the island, the nearest rail head being at Brunswick, 20 miles north.  Dungeness was used up until 1925; the other mansions were used sporadically by family and heirs up to present day.  Dungeness burned, purportedly arson by game poachers in 1959, but it had been empty and likely not maintained for over 30 years prior to it’s destruction. The ruins remain today. The National Park Service acquired most of the island properties or negotiated rights with heirs, and in 1972, the Cumberland Island was made a National Park.

Also notable is the location of Jekyll Island just a few miles to the north. Jekyll Island Club also was the location of a huge resort hotel as well as numerous cottages owned by Carnegie’s contemporaries- Rockefeller,  Vanderbuilt, Goodyear and Morgans, and was quite the gathering place for the mega-wealthy during the Gilded Age, although Thomas and Lucy were not offered membership in the exclusive enclave; snubbed, as it were. One of the most fascinating aspects of learning about the history of the disparate areas we visit is to learn how those seemingly disparate histories dovetail; Edison’s summer home was in Ft. Myers, Florida. His neighbor was Henry Ford, his mentor. Edison was friends with Henry Flagler of Florida railroad fame, responsible for bringing tourists by rail and the subsequent development boom. Edison created the power system for Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, he also created a power plant and distribution system for Dungeness and its ancillary buildings, as well as for other magnates. That these folks were acquainted is no surprise, but the fact that they were contemporaries and socially active friends is sometimes not taken into consideration in the context of the larger historical overview.  So, a snubbed Thomas Carnegie purchases an island just south of the high society club that wouldn’t have him, and he builds a showpiece that was at least as equally as impressive as theirs!

Our stay at Cumberland Island extended to six days. We booked the “Lands and Legacy” tour, a van tour hosted by the Park Service. The tour begins around 10 AM and covers the north part of the island. The van leaves from the Sea Camp ranger station and travels the main road to the northern end of the island, passing Carnegie mansions at Greyfield and Stafford Place, stopping at the Plum Orchard mansion for a tour and time to enjoy a packed lunch. Greyfield is still owned by Carnegie descendants and operates as a private inn, Stafford is also still owned by Carnegie descendants, and is a private residence. Plum Orchard is owned and maintained by the Park Service, and is being restored and maintained as an historic site.  Well worth the visit!

After lunch, the tour continued north to the “settlement” area, site of the 1st African Baptist Church established by freed slaves who lived on the island in 1893. The building, still standing was built in 1930. It’s famous for being the site of the John Kennedy Jr. wedding in 1996, the choice of venue made for the solitude it provided as well as the isolation from the media.  The return trip included a stop at the Stafford cemetery before returning to Sea Camp. The island has a pack in / pack out policy; there are no trash bins anywhere on the island, visitors must carry all their trash off the island, and bring whatever they need. Nothing is sold on the island. The policy is evidently successful, the only trash we saw were a very few items that probably were inadvertently dropped by visitors. There are numerous primitive campsites on the island, and several campsites with showers and restrooms within an easy walk of the Sea Camp docks. The Park limits visitors to a maximum of 300 per day, so it’s common to see only a few other folks in passing. The only access to the island is by ferry from St. Mary’s or by private boat. We anchored several hundred yards off the ferry dock at Sea Camp, so we had a quick dinghy ride to shore there, or about a 3/4 mile ride to the Dungeness docks if we wanted to explore the Dungeness grounds.

The few private residences that remain on the island will, at some point be relinquished to the Park Service. The current owners retain rights to the properties, each having a contract with the government that spells out the specific terms of the retained rights. In time, the entire island will transition to government ownership and become part of the National Park.

For cruisers traveling the ICW as well as visitors to the Georgia coast, Cumberland is a must-see stop, well worth spending a few days. We’ll undoubtedly return!

Comments are closed.