Joe Boyles Guest Columnist
Nearly two years ago, the National Park Service (NPS) reassigned my younger brother Fred from Andersonville to the superintendency of Cumberland Island National Seashore (CINS). Cumberland, the barrier island just north of Fernandina Beach and the Florida-Georgia border, has become a fascination to me.
Linda and I had the opportunity to visit Cumberland last November. We caught the 11:45 ferry from the St. Mary’s dock. There is no bridge to Cumberland; more on that later. It takes 45 minutes to arrive at the Dungeness dock at the south end of CINS, a good opportunity to look for porpoises and the birds that populate the salt marsh.
The history of Cumberland Island is both interesting and conflicting. The Timucuan tribe, Spanish missionaries and colonial fortifications did not leave a lasting impression on the 18-mile long island. The plantation period followed for nearly a century, principally built around the live oaks of the maritime forest (important for wooden shipbuilding) and Sea Island cotton.
An important burial took place in 1818 when Revolutionary War hero Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, was buried in the cemetery near Dungeness. There his remains rested for nearly a century until the Commonwealth of Virginia disinterred Lee and buried him next to his famous son at the Washington and Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va. Light Horse Harry’s original tombstone is still at CINS.
In the post-Civil War era when the plantations failed, northern money came south to fill the void of poverty that gripped the defeated South. Thomas and Lucy Carnegie came with their steel fortune from Pittsburg in 1882 and quickly purchased most of the island. They had a big family (9 children) so an aggressive construction program began almost immediately. As many as three hundred workers were employed to support the family.
Thomas died early and Lucy Coleman Carnegie became the matriarch of Cumberland. They lived off the accumulated fortune. None of the six sons had a profession so there was no steady income to support their lavish living style. Lucy died in 1916 and she locked up the estate in a trust until the last of her brood died forty-six years later. During this time, the family continued to spend away their wealth until they could no longer support their immense mansions which gradually deteriorated.
From the nine children, there were five lines of succession and the Carnegie’s ownership of the island was divided accordingly. Cash strapped heirs sold their lands to Savannah developer Charles Fraser who built Hilton Head, South Carolina. He wanted to do the same with Cumberland but the Carnegie descendents resisted. Their solution was to invite the National Park Service. In 1972, Cumberland was designated a national seashore although some families retained rights to live on the island for years afterward.
Lawsuits fly around CINS like confetti at New Years. Environmentalists sue. Former owners sue. Local politicians sue. The state argues with the Feds. They sue about land, driving rights, wilderness, turtles, horses, pigs, etc. Caught in the middle of this legal tug-of-war is the National Park Service. More than one of my brother’s predecessors has been tossed out on his ear. Lawyers in Coastal Georgia are doing a booming business.
No more than 300 visitors can make two ferry trips each day to and from the island. The annual visitor count is about 48 thousand. Tourists see three types of landscape across the 36 thousand acre island. The salt marsh dominates the western or river side. Through the middle of the island is the maritime forest, beautiful old twisted live oaks. The eastern shoreline is simply the widest, most beautiful beach you can witness, devoid of any buildings whatsoever. Nothing but sand dunes, sea oats, and packed sand to the rolling surf of the Atlantic. Across this island roam wild horses and an abundance of other wildlife than have adapted to Wild Cumberland. Hunting has long been part of Cumberland’s attraction and the NPS holds six hunts each year.
There are several important lessons in this story. Cumberland is largely preserved because there has never been a bridge to the island. The 1972 legislation stipulates that there will never be a bridge which I suspect will prove true. The Carnegies lived even beyond their means and eventually the money ran out. Wealth is a marvelous thing, but income pays the bills. The mansions they built were not from indigenous materials and eventually, fire, storms and termites took their toll. But the 200 year old Tabby House at Dungeness looks like it will survive another century or more.
Cumberland Island is a marvelous day trip from Madison. For a $20 ferry ride, you will see a site to remember for many years. There are no concessions, so bring things in your own backpack and prepare to walk. The island beckons.