Cumberland Island is a sea island located off the southeastern coast of Georgia, and it is the central focus of the Cumberland Island National Seashore Park. However, the island has a lengthy history prior to its acquisition by the National Park Service in 1972.
The island’s first inhabitants were members of the Timucua. Spanish settlers who explored the island in the 1550’s documented seven Timucua villages. The island was held as part of Spanish Florida until 1684, when the Spanish abandoned the island. In the 1730’s, English General James Oglethorpe arrived at the island. Oglethorpe oversaw the construction of two forts (erected to defend the island from possible incursions from the Spanish) and a hunting lodge, which he christened Dungeness.
From the time of the American Revolution through the American Civil War in the 1860’s, Cumberland Island was the location of large sea-island cotton plantations—in which the cotton was planted and picked by slaves—with the largest plantations belonging to the Miller and Stafford families. The Millers’ residence was located at the site of Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge and retained the name Dungeness. In the 1880’s the bulk of the island was purchased by Thomas Carnegie as a present for his wife Lucy. The Carnegies built a grand mansion at the location of the former Miller plantation home, and they too retained the name Dungeness. Even though Thomas Carnegie died fairly young, Dungeness served as Lucy Carnegie’s southern home until her death in 1916.
Once the Great Depression hit, Dungeness and many of the Carnegie vacation “cottages” were left vacant, although the island and several mansion-sized cottages remained in the Carnegie family for generations. Some of the few remaining inhabited properties on the island today are occupied by descendants of the Carnegies. Dungeness, unfortunately, was destroyed by fire in 1959; only ruins remain. One of the former Carnegie cottages, Plum Orchard, was abandoned and left to decay but has since been restored by the National Park Service, and it is open to the public for tours.
While the Carnegies and their extended families were busy constructing opulent residences, said residences were staffed mainly by black Americans, the majority of whom resided in their own small community near the northern tip of the island. Few structures remain from this community, although the most well-known of the remaining structures is the First African Baptist Church, founded in 1893. It is most famous for—of all things—being the location of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s wedding in 1996.
A smattering of private residences dot Cumberland Island, but today it is mostly uninhabited by humans. The island is covered mainly by a maritime forest, filled with live oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, and it is surrounded by salt-marshes and pristine beaches. In addition to the native wildlife, the island is known as the home of herds of wild, feral horses. Many believe these horses are descendants of horses brought to the island by the Spanish in the 1600’s; others believe it is more likely that these horses are descended from those brought to the island by the English in the 1700’s. While their origins remain in dispute, the fact remains that currently there are around a hundred and fifty feral horses living on the island.
There is no bridge to Cumberland Island, so visitors must come either by private boat or, more commonly, via the passenger ferry which departs from the town of Saint Mary’s twice daily. It is recommended that visitors make reservations for the ferry in advance, as space is limited. Visitors can bring a bicycle on the ferry for an extra $10/bike fee. Ferry tickets do not include the price of admission to the national park.
WHAT TO BRING
There are no facilities on the island from which to purchase supplies, so visitors must bring everything they may need. It is recommended that visitors bring water, food, bug spray, sunscreen, and clothing appropriate for both rain and bright sun. While bicycles can be rented on the island, their numbers are limited, and they are rented on a first-come, first-served basis.
WHAT TO DO
The pristine sea-island environment of Cumberland Island offers plenty of natural sights for the visitor, and the buildings that remain from the island’s Carnegie days offer a glimpse into life on the island in the past.
The island contains approximately fifty miles of hiking trails and roughly thirty-five miles of shoreline with beaches for swimming. The ruins of Dungeness are easily accessible from the southernmost ferry dock. Wild horses roam freely across the island, and most visitors will have the opportunity to view them. Bicycles can be ridden on the gravel road which runs from Dungeness at the island’s southern end to the northernmost parts of the island. Plum Orchard is located seven miles north of the northernmost ferry dock, and free tours are offered multiple times a day. Private van-tours can take visitors to Plum Orchard, as well as to locations further to the north, such as the First African Baptist Church. Reservations for private tours must be made in advance.
Please remember that while most of Cumberland is owned by the National Park Service, there are still privately owned properties on the island. Properties marked as private or with no trespassing signs are off limits to visitors.
WHERE TO STAY
For visitors who wish to remain on the island overnight, the National Park Service offers five campgrounds, with the southernmost Sea Camp being the most developed and the most accessible. Campers are advised to make reservations in advance and are limited to a maximum of seven consecutive nights.
For the more upscale visiting experience, visitors can stay at the Greyfield Inn, the only such facility on the island. Located in a former Carnegie “cottage,” the luxurious Greyfield Inn requires visitors make reservations in advance, with a minimum two-night stay. Rates are all inclusive, including transportation to and from the island and fine dining.
SEE MORE CUMBERLAND ISLAND PHOTOS HERE