The Time Machine, Cumberland Island

I have lived in Savannah, Georgia for almost two years, and I’ve been to the beach too many times to count. Almost every citizen of this city can say the same, and we have all had the same experience: you pack up a cooler of beer and water, grab some snacks, towels, and sunblock, and compete with traffic to find that precious parking spot. You find a good spot on the sand, far enough away from the little kids and the teenagers tossing a football. Frankly, it’s exhausting. One beach trip I experienced recently was a stark different from the others; no parking lots, no blaring radios or kids. Simply quiet, peaceful, and serene. All I could hear were the waves, and the seagulls cawing. I wish every beach trip would be like it. Oh, and there were wild horses in the background.

Cumberland Island is minutes away from St. Mary’s, Georgia; yet  it still feels like it’s trapped in the past. St. Mary’s is a tiny town right by the salt water, and has a ferry shuttling passengers to the island twice a day. Outside, young couples wait with their packs complete with tennis shoes and hats eagerly awaiting the call to board. My boyfriend and I were one of those couples. While we waited I snapped pictures of the blue water we were going to cross.

The trip took about 15 minutes. We docked and walked towards the Ranger’s Hut. There would be no guardrails or fences prohibiting us, and little lighting at the campsite. They gave us brochures stuffed with info concerning potential hazards, the wild horses, and the burned down mansion on the southern end of the island. Hoisting our packs, we began to walk down the sandy dirt path to our campsite.

The island is beautiful. Live oaks draped with Spanish moss and many other trees formed a canopy protecting us from the hot July sun. Ferns and weeds provided cover for the animals such as raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, and deer. Our campsite was within 40 feet of a sand dune. This was not like any sand dune I had ever seen before. It was at least 10-15 feet tall,  a massive mountain of sand to protect the inner island plant and animal life from large waves and storms. After we set up the tent and stored our food safely, we went to explore. We consulted our map and started towards the ruins of Dungeness. Our map had a little bio highlighting the brief history of this old haunted home. The founder of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, originally built a hunting lodge on the island and called it Dungeness. Later, Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene bought some of the island, dying before he could build anything on it. His wife remarried and built a four-story mansion on top of an Indian shell mound, naming it Dungeness in Oglethorpe’s memory. It featured 16 fireplaces and 12 acres of gardens around the home. Behind a servant’s house is a small graveyard with two very nice concrete tombstones. One bore the name of General Harry Lee; I wondered if he was related to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and indeed he was his father. In 1866, this home burnt down.

In the 1880’s another semi famous character stepped foot on the tiny island: the brother of Andrew Carnegie. Thomas and his wife aimed to build a winter retreat on the same site of the burnt mansion. Bigger and better than the last, it featured 59 rooms, several pools, and 40 smaller buildings to house all of their servants. This couple owned 90% of the island before selling it to the National Park Service. This home also came to ruin, succumbing to fire in 1959.

Photo from Wikipedia

All of this history lay hidden under the wreckage of the Carnegie’s home. A sign stood in front relaying the above paragraph to the reader in a matter-of-fact way. Guard-rails and gates barred us from actually going into where the house was. We could still see three or four tall brick chimneys, touched with black. Behind the house was a large yard, where several wild horses grazed. This was a beautiful backyard for a 59 room mansion on a Georgia island. The scene seemed achingly empty, the gouged eyes of the house looking over the abandoned beauty of the island.

By this time I was ready to see the beach, so we put on our swimming suits and grabbed the sunblock. Luckily there was a board sidewalk leading us over the flowing dunes. Many things stood out in my mind as evidence that this beach served as a vital part of this island’s ecosystem. No buildings along the shore line allowed the large dunes to protect the interior of the island. Numerous shell skeletons of horseshoe crabs remained lightly buried in the sand by the high tide line. Small crabs were being tossed in the waves, and small fish swam around our legs once we got in the water. Our only other company in the water was a boat, almost too far to see. We walked up the coast for a while, but had to turn back when dark clouds started to approach.

Our alarm clock for the morning were the birds; many, many chirping birds happy to be alive and start the day. As much as I enjoy camping, our blow up mattress was not comfortable. The rain fell all night, so we packed up and walked back to the Ranger’s Hut to catch the morning ferry. We sipped hot coffee on the porch and listened to the stories told by our companions. All had experienced a good trip, enjoying the raw beauty. This island is one the most undeveloped areas in the United States. It’s a great reminder to Georgians of what our coast used to look like. You can still imagine Oglethorpe and the Indians walking around living off the island among the moss and the island horses. When I need a peaceful weekend trip, I will be at Cumberland among the horses, the creaky trees, and the quiet beach.


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