Cumberland Island is one of the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States and at 17.5 miles long is the largest in terms of continuously exposed land. It is located off the coast of Georgia and constitutes the westernmost point of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean in the United States. There is no bridge to the island so we took the Cumberland Ferry.
We took a 6 hour tour which is the only way to see everything on the island in one day. There is one main road which is hard packed sand with a lot of big bumps. The guide gave us a running narrative about the island, focusing mostly on the late 1800s and early 1900s when very rich people settled on the island. We had no idea that so many rich people lived here and given how primitive the island is, it is hard to believe. What we found out is that unlimited money can make primitive nice (more on that later).
There are around 150 feral horses on the island (4th and 8th pictures) and we got to see a few of them. We also got extremely lucky and got to see one of the two white deer that live on the island. The guide says he sees one of them maybe 2 – 3 times a year. We have no photographic evidence because he was in some bushes so the pictures are not good, but at least we got to see one. We also got to see a very cute armadillo.
The tour took us to the church where John F Kennedy Jr. got married (11th and 12th picture). It was amazingly small and the guests had to travel 13 miles on a very rough road to get to the church and then travel the same road back to go to the reception. Hard to imagine. The island is very beautiful and at the time most of it was not open to the public, so it was a good place for privacy.
Ok, for those people who do not want any more of a history lesson, you can stop reading now. For those who want to know how unlimited money can make a primitive place, not so primitive – read on. We had probably 4 hours of history on the tour, one of the most interesting parts was about Lucy Carnegie.
After the Civil War, Union soldiers went back north and told everyone about how nice the winters are in the south. Lucy Carnegie, the wife of Thomas M. Carnegie (brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie) wanted to have a winter home in the South. At the time, the Carnegies were the richest people in the world. She wrote a letter to the Jekyll Island Club (the millionaire’s club) to request permission to build a house on the island. She received a reply that her husband’s (who was a Scottish immigrant) blood was not blue enough for them. Not to be deterred, she heard about Cumberland Island which is a few miles south of Jekyll Island and after a trip there, she and her husband bought land on the southern part of the island.
In 1884, they began building a 59-room mansion designed as a Scottish castle. After three winters there, Lucy decided to live on Cumberland Island permanently. She lured her nine children down to the island by building her married children $10,000 estates and creating a fun environment with hunting, polo, golf, tennis, squash, and pools. Lucy ultimately created quite an estate with housing for the over 300 servants that it took to run the household and entertainment. Lucy Carnegie had a yacht to take her to the mainland, a train that was at her beck and call to take her wherever she wanted to go and the power and money to bring just about anything to the island (she owned 90% of it).
Plum Orchard (pictures 5 – 8) was built in 1900 for her oldest son. His 19-year old wife felt the 10,000 square ft. house was too small, so her father gave her $50,000 to add on to the house. It was expanded to 22,000 feet and was one of the first houses in the US to have indoor plumbing. It had 11 bathrooms, an indoor pool, and a squash court. Some of the stories about how these people lived were amazing. At the turn of the century rich people ate cold food to prove they had the means to keep food cold. Lucy Carnegie had a steam boat that she sent to Maine to get 2 ton ice blocks. They brought them down to Cumberland Island, put them in an ice house and then each estate had ice delivered to them every day to keep the food cold and allow for ice for drinks. To quote our tour guide, if these people wanted iced tea, they did not care what had to be done to get it, it just better be there when they want it.
After Edison discovered DC electricity, Lucy Carnegie was one of the first people to get a generator. She said she wanted the electricity to go to Plum Orchard, so they ran a 9 mile cable across the island for her. It took coal to fuel the generators, so the steam boat spent a lot of time getting coal from Pennsylvania. Because the boat was getting coal, they had to replace the ice, so they built the world’s first ice maker at Plum Orchard. It took an entire room and several servants to run it. We guess money and rich people’s desire can be the mother of invention.
Lucy Carnegie’s legacy is that she skipped her spoiled children in her will and left Cumberland Island to her grandchildren hoping they would keep it undeveloped. (Do not feel bad for her children, they got everything else). She was right to trust her grandchildren. They gifted Cumberland Island to the National Park Service and the island has remained undeveloped.