Cumberland Island: An Isle of Hidden Treasures
Editor's Note: Recent proposed legislation to amend the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area boundaries has once again thrust the Golden Isle into the spotlight. The article below originally ran in the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of The Rambler. Following the article is more recent information on the issue.
Plum Orchard mansion on Cumberland Island.
On a quiet island off the coast of Georgia sits a vacant historic mansion. While years of vegetation have grown up around it, the magnitude of its size—22,000 square feet—is still as awe-inspiring as when it was first constructed in 1898. This splendid home once was filled with laughter, parties, and people. It is one of the largest single-family historic homes in Georgia and was built by one of America’s most influential families, but for the past 30 years, it has lain empty and dormant. The inside, once a grand showplace, now has cracked plaster and peeling wallpaper. The well-built and once-attractive carriage house recently collapsed due to neglect.
The house is called Plum Orchard mansion, the family is the Carnegies and the island is Cumberland, where many historic structures of similar importance are rapidly deteriorating as controversy swirls over the wilderness limitations placed on historic properties on the 18-mile island.
In 1972, in response to lobbying by the Carnegie and Candler families, who then owned most of the island, Congress designated Cumberland Island a National Seashore to secure its future. True to its word, the National Park Service (NPS) has preserved the condition of the island, and its natural areas are as beautiful as ever. But while Cumberland’s natural resources have flourished, its historic resources have been largely neglected and have deteriorated. Under NPS ownership, two of the most important outbuildings associated with the Carnegie properties, both listed on the National Register, have fallen to the ground. Other structures suffering from neglect include Plum Orchard mansion itself and The Settlement, a historic African American village.
In 1982, Congress designated 8,840 acres of the island as “wilderness.” Part of the challenge associated with maintaining these and other historic structures is their location in or proximity to areas designated “wilderness” or “potential wilderness,” which have very strict accessibility guidelines. However, preservation of historic buildings, particularly on a subtropical sea island, requires frequent access and use so that the buildings are regularly maintained and utilized to avoid otherwise inevitable rapid deterioration. NPS’s efforts in preserving Cumberland’s natural habitat should be commended; however, its neglect for the island’s cultural and historic resources is at a crisis stage.
Without Cumberland’s historic and cultural resources, evidence of its evocative and significant history is in danger of disappearing as well. Over the past 3,000 years, not only have some of America’s most influential families called the island home, but so have Native American Indians, Spanish explorers and English generals.
Cumberland’s Human Inhabitation
Native Americans, the first human occupants of the island, left behind traces mainly in the form of oyster shell middens. French explorers landed on the island in 1562, but were driven out shortly after by the Spanish. Sparse remains of a 1595 Spanish mission are located in the Half Moon Bluff area, a 700-acre historic district on the north end of the island. Here also are the remains of Fort St. Andrews, constructed in 1736 under the leadership of Gen. James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia and named the island in honor of the English Duke of Cumberland. In 1783, Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene purchased a half-interest in property on Cumberland. Twenty years after his death, his widow Catherine and her new husband Phineas Miller completed a four-story tabby home, “Dungeness.” It was at Dungeness that Gen. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of Gen. Robert E. Lee, died in 1818.
By 1860, 13 plantations were operating on Cumberland Island. According to an 1850 Census report, of the approximately 500 inhabitants of the island, more than 455 were enslaved African Americans working the cotton fields. Numerous chimneys marking slave cabins remain on the island. In the late 1880s, freed slaves and their descendants constructed an area in the Half Moon Bluff district called The Settlement, which contains the island’s only extant buildings built by African Americans for their own use. This area was thrust into the national spotlight in 1996, when John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in a secret wedding in a tiny African American church (originally constructed in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930s) in The Settlement.
Near Half Moon Bluff is High Point, a former hotel built in the late 1800s and later acquired by the Candler family (of Coca-Cola fame). The 34-acre compound includes the hotel and 14 outbuildings. The Candlers retain a life estate on this property.
Visitation to Half Moon Bluff is severely restricted by the wilderness designation of the area, which includes the nearly 200-year-old Main Road that links the island from north to south. Only NPS staff or families with life estates are permitted to drive on this National Register-listed road; island visitors can get to this area only by a 30-mile round-trip hike.
Carnegie Family Legacy
Lost Treasure: The once-grand Dungeness Recreation Building (above, in a 1930 photo)
has been diminished to shambles
(below, in a 2001 photo) due to years of neglect.
The southern half of Cumberland contains several large and architecturally significant homes built by perhaps the island’s most influential owners, the Carnegies. Thomas (brother of Andrew) and his wife Lucy began buying land on Cumberland in 1881; by 1900, they owned 90 percent of the land, on which they had built several homes for themselves and their heirs. In 1885, the Carnegies completed their massive 44-room home, which they called Dungeness, on the site of the Miller house of the same name. The Carnegies built five other homes on the island—the Cottage (1886), Greyfield (1901), Stafford (1901), The Grange (1903) and Plum Orchard (1898).
When Lucy Carnegie died in 1916, she stipulated that none of her 16,000 acres of land on the island could be sold while her children were alive. However, upkeep on the old mansions was difficult, and Dungeness saw its last party in 1925. In 1959, the grand house caught fire, leaving spectacular ruins visitors can see today. The Dungeness Recreation Building, which once held an indoor swimming pool, squash court, gymnasium, billiard room and several large guestrooms, has since collapsed from years of neglect. Dungeness is one of the most visited sites on the island; according to a recent Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitors Study, 83 percent of visitors to the island visit the ruins, which are easily accessible from the ferry dock.
Visitors to Plum Orchard are faced with a bit more difficult journey, due to the house’s remote location—located halfway up the north side of the island (almost eight miles) and surrounded by wilderness. The Neoclassical home was designed by noted Boston firm Peabody & Stearns and includes beautifully designed rooms, a Tiffany lamp and wallpaper, an indoor swimming pool and squash courts. Vehicles are not permitted in this “wilderness” area. NPS has indicated that it would like to see Plum restored by a private or nonprofit party. However, under its current accessibility, such an effort is unlikely to be feasible, says Greg Paxton, president and CEO of The Georgia Trust. “Who would invest millions in a house on a subtropical sea island when the only access to the beach is a six-mile walk or a one-hour boat ride?”
The Carnegie descendants fulfilled the wishes of Lucy Carnegie and held onto their ancestral land. In the late 1960s, the Carnegie and Candler families recognized the need to preserve the island in a more permanent manner by taking governmental action. While retaining life estates on their ancestral property, family members donated, bargain sold or voluntarily sold their property to the National Park Service (NPS) with the agreement that their family homes would be preserved and their beloved island would not become a resort town.
Plum Orchard and its 12 acres was also included in the family’s donations to NPS, along with an endowment for its care.
The only Carnegie-owned home that has been in continuous use is Greyfield, which Carnegie descendants opened as an inn in 1962. Part-owner Janet “Gogo” Ferguson, who coordinated the Kennedy wedding, says she is disappointed that NPS has not followed a balanced management plan for the island’s resources.
“My family donated this land, but not at the demise, expense and eradication of the human history on the island,” Ms. Ferguson says. “We are encouraged because of the private sector—the love and dedication of family members with the incredible support of The Georgia Trust, the National Trust and preservationists like Rep. Jack Kingston, who understand the importance of human underlay on Cumberland Island.”
Cumberland is what it is – a beautiful, unspoiled island free of concentrated development – because its owners took measures to preserve their island from development. Without their foresight, chances are that Cumberland would be indistinguishable from its developed neighbors, St. Simons and Jekyll Island.
“Cumberland is often depicted as a ‘pristine wilderness’ that we have to save,” Ms. Ferguson says. “But it has always been inhabited by people. It is the people who have preserved Cumberland Island. We have to find a way to balance both the cultural resources and natural resources on the island.”
“The reality of the situation is that NPS has allocated insufficient funding to successfully care for these buildings,” Paxton says. “Given the Park Service’s current resources it is unlikely that it can care for these buildings without outside help and active use. Under NPS’s proposed plan, the fate of Plum Orchard and the rest of the resources are in grave doubt.”
A Balancing Act
When overlapping wilderness and historic designations are applied to the same area, inherent conflicts arise. If one party receives more rights, it diminishes the rights of the other party. Therefore, The Georgia Trust seeks a balanced management approach to facilitate the preservation, use and interpretation of the significant historic resources on the island while conserving the natural ecosystems and plant and animal species that comprise the island’s unique physical environment.
“We believe the real opportunity provided by Cumberland Island is to preserve and interpret both the human and natural history through the historic resources that exist on this island,” says Glen Bennett, senior director of preservation for The Georgia Trust.
One way to achieve this balance is to redraw the wilderness boundaries. Many areas of the island designated as wilderness or potential wilderness do not meet the wilderness criteria because of the cultural resources located in them—Plum Orchard, High Point, Half Moon Bluff Historic District and the 200-year-old Main Road are all such areas. By removing the designations from the western and northern edges of the island, historic resources could be accessed without significant effects on natural resources, while conserving the most significant natural parts of the island along the east coast and inland to be managed so it eventually qualifies as a true wilderness.
The Georgia Trust and other preservation organizations do not advocate increasing visitation from the established 300 persons per day or over-using the historic properties, but increased education and orientation for visitors and easy access to these sites. Currently, it is almost impossible for visitors to get a sense of the island’s rich history.
“The vast majority of visitors and those who know and love the island wish to preserve both its natural and historic importance,” Paxton says. “We’re all working for the same goal—preservation. Rather than debating conflicting regulations, we should agree to manage the island in a manner that will preserve all its significance.”
This article was originally printed in the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of The Rambler.
Proposed Cumberland Island Bill a “Win-win” (Nov./Dec. 2003)
Georgia U. S. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Zell Miller (D-Ga.) have recently introduced legislation to amend the boundaries of the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area so as to remove the main road from the wilderness and thus allow increased visitor access to historic areas of the island. These secluded areas include numerous historic sites along the island’s western and northern edge, including the African-American Settlement, Native American shell mounds and Plum Orchard, Georgia’s largest historic house. The main road itself is 200 years old and listed on the National Register.
The proposed legislation would preserve the vast majority of the wilderness and also adds 210 acres. The legislation represents a reasonable compromise, balancing the interests of environmentalists, historic preservationists, island residents and Cumberland visitors.
Greg Paxton, President & CEO of The Georgia Trust, supported this legislation in a guest editorial that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on September 10, 2003.
Cumberland Island Update, (Jan./Feb. 2004)
Greg Paxton, President & CEO of The Georgia Trust, recently testified before Congress on behalf of a bill that would preserve Cumberland Island’s wilderness status while also providing a means to rehabilitate structures that have fallen in disrepair.
The new legislation, proposed by Sens. Chambliss (R-GA) and Miller (D-GA), would remove the National Register-listed 200-year-old Main Road and two spur roads from the wilderness designation, providing limited visitor and preservation access to historic sites. Making it easier to reach such sites would not only aid in preservation efforts, but also give the island’s limited number of daily visitors a better sense of the land’s history. Previously, the sole means to reach sites such as The Settlement, a former African-American freeman town in which JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married in 1996, and High Point, a c. 1890 hotel, was a 30-mile round-trip hike.
“Cumberland Island has been the source of much heated debate in the community,” says Paxton. “The proposed legislation is a reasonable compromise that will balance the management of the island’s natural and historic venues.”
If the bill is passed, the remainder of the wilderness area would remain untouched by vehicles. In fact, the proposed legislation would add 210 acres to the wilderness area.