Reflections, Travels

Cumberland Island – Return to Wilderness

Cumberland Island is the largest of the over 100 Sea Islands off the coast of Southeastern United States stretching from the mouths of the Santee and St. Johns Rivers across South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These barrier islands help mitigate the immense energy of ocean waves and protect the inner coastlines against erosion.

Facing the Atlantic Ocean is a pristine 18 mile (29 km) long beach, home to among others, sand plowers, shorebirds and oystercatchers.

It is also an important breeding ground of the vulnerable loggerhead sea turtles, which climb ashore under the covers of night in May/June to lay eggs. Hatchlings emerge after around 80 days and make a race towards ocean guided by the moon and starlight reflecting off the waters on the horizon. It is estimated that only one in a thousand will survive to adulthood. Upon reaching sexual maturity in about 30 years, females will come back to or near the same beach to start the cycle anew.

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James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, first built a hunting lodge on Cumberland Island in 1736 which he called Dungeness, after the headland of the same name off the coast of Kent, England.

In 1785, Revolutionary War hero General Nathanael Greene and his wife, Catherine, received 11,000 acres (45 sqkm) land on Cumberland Island as repayment for his personal financial war contributions. Gen Greene died soon after from illness, leaving Catherine heavily in debt. She would eventually transform the lands into a successful Sea Cotton plantation, and build a four-story tabby on top of a Timucuan midden (or shell mound) in 1803.

During the War of 1812, the island was occupied by the British, who used the house as a headquarters. The house was abandoned during the US Civil War and burned in 1866.

In the 1880s, the property and others was purchased by Thomas Carnegie (younger brother of Andrew Carnegie) and his wife Lucy who would come to own 90% of the island. Work started on a mansion on the ruins of the former four-story tabby. Completed in 1886 after Carnegie’s death, a grieving Lucy vowed to raise her children in idyllic surroundings of Cumberland Island, far away from the maddening crowd and the hustle and bustle of the turn of the century industrialism.

In 1890, Lucy engaged the services of Peabody and Sterns, a leading architectural firm in Boston. Over the next fifteen years, Dungeness would be transformed from a two story Queen Ann style “cottage” into a 59 room Italianate mansion.

Lucy passed away in 1916, and the Carnegie family abandoned Dungeness in 1925. In 1959 the Dungeness mansion was destroyed by fire.

At the height of human habitation more than three-four hundred persons lived on island. Gradually that lands have reverted back to a state of wilderness state with traces of human civilization barely visible save for the designated campgrounds,private properties and deteriorating ruins.

Even the horses, once domesticated, have turned feral; roaming the island as they please.

Heading inward from waters of the Atlantic, beaches yield to the protective dunes where fine white sand is softly rooted in place by the wild oats.

Grasses give way to taller vegetation, then to trees and shrubs.

Further inland the maritime forest is alive with the memorizing branches of live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Pictures doesn’t do justice to the sweetness of bird songs set against the tranquility of the open space dappled in filtered sunlight.

Mystery and wonder lingers in the air. One minute, a fleeting glimpse of a white-tailed deer dashing through the fauna; the next yielding right of way to a slow moving armadillo with its nose on the ground going about its everyday business. Magical possibilities abound.

One the western side of the island, the calm waters of the salt marshes are home to an entirely different ecological system. Egrets and wood storks are a common sight here; two of the many animals that calls the island and its waters home.

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Cumberland Island is a testament to the importance of preserving wilderness, of safeguarding the magic of nature, for future generations.  At the same time though, it is also a singular book recording the history of man’s transformation of the lands to meet our needs. How the story ends remain to be seen.

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