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Wednesday, 29 April 2015 02:55

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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out natcornCumberland Island, which is composed of Great Cumberland Island (the national seashore) and Little Cumberland Island (private), is one of the largest barrier islands along Georgia’s coast. Cumberland Island is about 18 miles long and about 3 miles wide — around 40 square miles. The eastern edge of the island is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, while the west, north and south are bounded by sounds, rivers and marsh.

The island is noted for its wilderness and biodiversity but has a long, varied and rich human history as well. This ancient barrier island has a human history that goes back at least 4,000 years. Archaeologists study the shell mounds left behind to get an idea of what daily life was like for these original inhabitants. They believe at least seven different Native American tribes inhabited the island when Europeans first arrived.

The Spanish were the first to arrive, around 1566. They named the island San Pedro and though they built forts and missions on the island, they departed in the early 1700s and left behind no obvious traces of habitation. The English followed, and Gen. James Oglethorpe renamed the island Cumberland in honor of William Augustus, the young Duke of Cumberland. The English also built a series of forts on the island and established Berrimacke (a small village) and the Dungeness hunting lodge. The English abandoned the island by 1775.

Phineas Miller began construction on a four-story mansion — Dungeness Mansion — at the site of the old hunting lodge in 1796. The mansion became a renowned playground for the rich and famous.

From the early 1800s up until the Civil War, the natural resources on Cumberland were heavily exploited. The live oak and pine forests were cut and the timber used for shipbuilding. Plantations growing the famous Sea Island cotton plus corn, indigo and rice sprang up on the island, and livestock roamed freely.

The Civil War plunged Cumberland into ruin once again. Dungeness burned again in 1866 and the island was mostly abandoned, except for a group of freed slaves that settled on the northern end. Thomas Carnegie bought most of Cumberland Island in 1880 and rebuilt Dungeness in the manner of a Scottish castle. The Carnegies built 40 outbuildings on the property along with a golf course, squash course and manicured landscaping. Cumberland Island was again a playground for the rich and famous until Dungeness burned again in 1959.

The fate of Cumberland Island lay in limbo with many diverse interests, from strip mining to development, vying for the upper hand. By the late 1960s it looked like Cumberland was poised to follow suit behind Hilton Head Island and other barrier island resorts. But in 1969, when developer Charles Fraser began construction of an airstrip, opposition galvanized. The Carnegies worked with environmentalists and the Mellon Foundation to purchase most of the private land on the island, which they donated (with many stipulations) to the National Park Service, and in 1972 Cumberland Island National Seashore was created. In 1982, nearly 10,000 acres was designated as wilderness.

The fate of Cumberland Island is clearly still not sealed. There are more than 2,000 acres of private land on the island that could possibly be developed and the Department of Interior is under constant pressure to allow easier access – currently one ferry, which can carry only 45 people, runs between the mainland and the island. But, for the present, Cumberland Island is home to one of the largest maritime forests in the world.

Most of this diverse forest is second growth — remember much of the island was agricultural back in the early to mid 1800s — but it has regenerated nicely and there are some relic live oaks, more than 400 years old. The live oaks covered with resurrection fern and draped in Spanish moss, couple with the exotic-looking palmetto give the forest an almost tropical feel. Willow and laurel oak join the live oak along with magnolia, red bay and several pines – loblolly, slash, longleaf and pond to complete the maritime forest. Other habitats include large high dunes along the eastern beach and an expansive salt marsh.

Animals on the island include many rare and/or endangered species like loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, piping plover, right whale, least tern, American oystercatchers and more.

This wonderful, wild place is not somewhere you visit on impulse, however. Reservations have to be made even for day trips — you can check out the logistics at the National Park Service’s website — but it’s definitely worth planning for.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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