Indigenous people lived on Cumberland Island 2000 years B. C. Spanish settlers arrived in the 1500s. They were followed by French then British. At the end of the 1700s, General Nathaniel Greene bought 11,000 acres. After his passing, his widow married Phineas Miller and the Millers built a tabby mansion south of Cumberland in 1803.
1881 marked the beginning of the Carnegie era on Cumberland. Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy Coleman bought thousands of acres south of the island and built an expansive mansion on the site of the Miller’s house. The Carnegies hailed from Pittsburgh. They had made their fortune in Steel. “Pittsburgh architect Andrew Peebles designed a massive Queen Anne Style mansion with wraparound verandas, high ceilings, several porches, many turrets, and a 100-foot high tower”. After Thomas’ death in 1886, Lucy lived with her nine children in the lavish 50 room castle named Dungeness, expanding it even further as the years went by. Theirs was an “idyllic” life that included activities such as “hunting, fishing and crabbing, horseback riding, and swimming in the lakes, creeks, ocean, and pools”. Mrs. Carnegie managed the estate creating an entire community to support it. 40 structures were erected on the grounds and a staff of over 300 people worked diligently to keep it running. There was a recreation house with a heated pool, a steam room, a squash court, and guest bedrooms. The Carnegies raised poultry, cattle, pork and grew fruits and vegetables in an effort to be self-sustaining. Mrs. Carnegie also built large homes on the island for her married children. Dungeness burned down in 1959. It had been uninhabited since 1925.
Carnegie heirs sold their shares of the island to the Federal Government. Cumberland was established as a National Park in 1972, named Cumberland Island National Seashore. Some sections of the island remain private properties.
We visited on February 4th, 2022. We boarded the ferry early at St Marys, GA. It dropped us off at Dungeness dock south of the island. I started by exploring the grounds around Dungeness. I then hiked an approximately 5 mile loop starting at Dungeness trail heading toward the beach then walked north on the beach to sea camp beach crossing, the sea camp bathhouse then the ranger station. I walked back on the river trail to the museum where I waited on the ferry for the return trip. The loop took me through a stunning white sand beach, beautiful long boardwalks over salt marshes, a maritime forest, and an amazing oak tree forest. I was in awe at the beauty surrounding me everywhere I looked. At the museum I took a few photos of the mansion as it looked in its glory days before the fire.
Cumberland enchanted me as it did the Carnegies over a hundred years ago. I will certainly be back to explore the north end of the island. While I see what attracted the family to this dreamy island, it is difficult for me to fathom the care-free, leisurely life they led on it. It seems unreal yet its vestiges stood before me on that gorgeous February day, a stark reminder of a life of excess only allowed to a few.