The Cumberland Island National Seashore is the largest, southernmost barrier island on the Georgia coast, and has been inhabited for thousands of years. There is evidence of the early Timucuan tribes and early Spanish settlers, but their locations on the island remain a mystery. Even the defensive positions of the British, built prior to the Revolution have been lost to time. Much of this is due to the nature of barrier islands, they are not static, but shift with the wind, tide, and current. Today, under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the National Park Service shelters 36,000 acres of maritime forests, wild beach, freshwater lakes, salt marshes, and 9,800 acres of designated wilderness on Cumberland Island.
We had visited the area in 2015 to stay at the Kings Bay Navy Submarine Base. During that visit we had learned about Cumberland Island and visited the National Park Service museum, but hadn’t set aside time to actually travel to the island. This trip was to take care of that.
The only way to visit Cumberland Island is by boat. The National Park Service operates a daily ferry from nearby St. Marys, GA, and the ferry takes only 300 people each day. You can make reservations up to six months in advance and almost every ferry is full. We were able to make a reservation a couple days before our visit.
You can camp on the island for a maximum of seven days in primitive, hike-in campgrounds, but you must bring all of your supplies, as only drinking water is available there. In some of the campgrounds the water is drawn from wells and must be filtered.
We planned to bring our bikes with us. There are a limited number of bikes allowed on the ferry and it is first-come, so show up early. Unfortunately, while we were unloading, we discovered that my bike had a flat tire, so we could only take Pat’s bike with us. I rented one on the island. We had mixed feelings about the bikes. We tried to ride to Plum Orchard, one of the old mansions, but the road was a sandy two-track and the sand was soft and loose in many areas, making biking a struggle. Even on my rental bike with beach tires, I was struggling. We decided that we weren’t going to make it and headed back to the southern end of the island.
We took a side road that led to the eastern shore and came out north of Sea Camp Beach. Here the bike riding on the beach was fun. The sand was damp and hard, like riding on a sidewalk. We walked in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and picked up seas shells off the beach. South of Sea Camp Beach we had lunch while watching the sea gulls, terns, and some of Cumberland Island’s wild horses.
The horses of Cumberland Island are not truly wild, but feral horses, descended from modern domestic horses that were brought to the island by the early settlers. By the end of the 1700s, island landowners reported an estimate of 200 domestic horses and mules were kept as free ranging livestock. During the 1800s several plantations used horses for transportation, work, and recreation. When the Park was established in 1972, the horses became feral on the island. They are not managed but survive on their own and the size of the herd is affected by the natural stressors faced by native wildlife.
The largest mansion on the island is Dungeness. Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene was granted land on Cumberland Island in 1783. His wife built a four story home on the island and named it Dungeness, but Greene died before he could move in. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1866. In 1884 Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew Carnegie) and his wife, Lucy, began building on the Dungeness ruins. This 56-room Queen Anne style mansion is now in ruins and is a key landmark.
The Thomas Carnegie family owned 90% of the island and built three other mansions, Greyfield, Stafford, and Plum Orchard, for their children. Plum Orchard was built for Carnegie’s son, George and his wife Margaret Thaw in 1898 and donated to the National Park Service in 1971. The Park Service now maintains it and makes it available for tours. We wondered why the family let Dungeness fall intro ruin, but never found any answers.
The Carnegie’s weren’t the only inhabitants. A settlement of freed slaves established a community in the north end of the island. The First African Baptist Church, built in 1893 and rebuilt in 1937 is one of the few remaining structures.
After the last few days of being tourists, we spent Thursday taking it easy around the campsite, doing some routine maintenance, and on Friday, March 25th we were back on the road. Next stop, Falls Lake State Recreation Area near Raleigh, NC.