Georgia’s Cumberland a reminder of what Beaufort County lost

6 mins read


It is Saturday, Jan. 18, and I’m at the Dungeness ruins on Cumberland Island.

Cumberland is 36,000 acres of (almost) untouched maritime forest bordered by 17 miles of Sahara-sized dunes — a landscape that makes one gasp and fall on one’s knees thanking God we had the wisdom to leave this place undisturbed, undiminished.

It is also a destination for the day-trippers who make the 45-minute boat ride across Cumberland Sound from St. Mary’s, Ga.

Earlier today Susan and I were a part of those embarking day-trippers; waiting at the end of a dock; watching a troop of confused Boy Scouts remove their stainless steel cook stoves and neoprene water bottles from the bow of the “Cumberland Lady.”

“They’ll be taking another boat,” said the Park Ranger.

But after learning there was no second boat, the female ranger told the Scouts to reload their gear while the rest of us — mostly gray-haired, hypertensive retirees — were fighting off a squadron of January-gestated “no-seeums.”

“Do not touch the feral horses or pose for selfies with them … and do not try to mount them,” she said to a group arthritic oldsters that would never, under any circumstances, try to mount a feral animal of any kind.

“There’s canine distemper on Cumberland and you may see a raccoon who appears tipsy,” she continued. “These animals are not rabid; but do not feed or try to make friends with them.”

At this point, a second wave of “no-seeums” made another attack, and some of the day-trippers were ready to retreat to the Riverview Hotel where we had just knocked down our complimentary bagel.

“Whatever you take onto Cumberland must be taken off of Cumberland,” she continued. “And you are limited — by virtue of NPS rules — to the removal of two items from the beach. If these items are shells there can’t be any organic material in those shells,” she said.

Cumberland was once the exclusive enclave of Thomas Carnegie — he built Dungeness — and his fortune kept the loggers and paper-making folks at bay. But in the late 1960s the Carnegie heirs knew their time and resources were finite. Some of these descendants approached the National Park Service looking for options.

About the same time, our own Charles Fraser (Sea Pines Plantation) was learning that retirees from New Canaan, Noroton and New Haven would come south and live on a barrier island if there were covenants, manicured golf courses and a guard (with a badge) at the gate.

And so Fraser quietly purchased 3,000 acres from Thomas Carnegie’s heirs. But when Fraser cleared-off the trees for a mile-long airstrip, the Georgia Conservancy took note. At the same time the State of Georgia decided that it needed Cumberland for an active recreation area — much like the one they had developed on Jekyll Island.

Fraser was determined to develop his Cumberland property and sent a young Harvard MBA — Landon Butler — to Cumberland to rally local support.

Initially Butler was successful but then he met a local, anti-development activist named Nancy Johnson. She convinced him there was merit in keeping the Island pristine and they (with help from the Georgia Conservancy) convinced an up-and-coming Governor, Jimmy Carter, that Carnegie’s offshore retreat should be a National Seashore.

Two years later President Richard Nixon signed the Bill which required a wilderness feasibility study that would also prohibit the building of a bridge or a causeway.

From the beginning, the emphasis was keeping Cumberland Island isolated and free of any architecture that would diminish the forest and the dunes.

And when one arrives at the Sea Camp Ranger Station and walks into the mystical live oak forest,one immediately understands that this magical place is worth the Ranger’s orientation; and the swarms of “no-seeums”; and the $31.64 round trip fee for passage across the Sound. And Cumberland Island is also a reminder of what we have lost here in Beaufort County.

Yes, I know that Beaufort County was once characterized as a third world country complete with hunger, hemorrhagic fever and intestinal worms the size of recumbent rattlesnakes.

And yes, I know there are new schools, wider highways and expanded hospitals thanks to the tax dollars that pour into the county’s coffers.

And yes, I was once on the Planning Commission and approved (some of) the condominiums and outlet malls that have become the ignoble backdrop for our suburbanized lives.

But everyone who lives here should pony-up $31.64 (and the $10 entrance fee) and see what Beaufort County looked like 75 years ago.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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