Tree-lined road on Cumberland Island, Georgia

Tree-lined road on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Photo by @gcalebjones

Cumberland Island National Seashore's Road to Preservation

How this national treasure on the Georgia coast became protected and what it means for visitors.

The largest and southernmost of the barrier islands that dot Georgia’s more than 100 miles of coastline, Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long with more than 36,000 acres of salt marshes, maritime forest, sand dunes, and beachfront — more than 9,800 acres of which form the official Cumberland Island National Seashore. Established by the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, national seashores preserve the country’s natural coastal lands for public recreation and enjoyment, and Cumberland’s remote location, pristine beachfront, and diverse ecosystem make it a must-visit destination.

Early inhabitants & settlers

Small building beneath large trees on Cumberland Island, Georgia
Small building beneath large trees on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Photo by @wandernorthga

Originally inhabited by the Timucua tribe, the island was colonized by the Spanish and the British before becoming an American agricultural hub and large exporter of citrus fruit, olives, cotton, and timber. Post-Civil War, the island became a popular vacation destination for the wealthy industrial elite, including Coca-Cola founders the Candlers and steel tycoons the Carnegies, who built a 59-room castle at the site of the former Dungeness plantation on the island’s south side in the late 19th century.

The push for preservation

Feral horse on the beach on Cumberland Island, Georgia
Feral horse on the beach on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Photo by @2traveldads

Because of the private, exclusive nature of the island and lack of road access to the mainland, Cumberland remained largely unspoiled well into the mid-20th century, at which point the Carnegies owned 90 percent of the land. But, as the island started to become a target for developers, the family and its descendants began searching for a way to preserve the island’s unique landscape for others. In 1954, they approached NPS about the feasibility and potential of Cumberland becoming a national seashore. At the time, Cumberland was one of the Eastern Seaboard’s last remaining large-scale maritime conservation areas, and by 1955, NPS began plans to secure the land needed to create the official park.

The process hit some roadblocks — including a state proposal to build a causeway to the mainland and resistance from a prominent real estate developer, Charles Fraser, who developed part of Hilton Head Island and owned 3,000 critical acres necessary to create the national seashore. After nearly two decades of efforts, including the influence of the Georgia Conservancy and the Sierra Club as well as the Carnegie family, Fraser sold his holdings and Cumberland Island National Seashore was created in 1972 with nearly 10,000 acres of land granted from the Carnegies as well as other properties purchased with donations from the Mellon Foundation.

Cumberland Island today

Two people walking toward Dungeness Ruins on Cumberland Island, Georgia
Two people walking toward Dungeness Ruins on Dungeness Ruins on Cumberland Island, Georgia

As part of the negotiations to open the national seashore, many prominent families still maintain private homes on the island, adhering to NPS guidelines of preservation and environmental integrity. Due to those efforts and its remote location, Cumberland Island remains nearly 75 percent wild and is only accessible to outsiders via private boat or passenger ferry, the latter of which departs from St. Marys, Georgia, seven miles east of the island.

To preserve the island’s serenity and fragile ecosystem, visitors are limited to 300 per day. The only overnight accommodations are at designated campsites and the historic, 30-guest Greyfield Inn. Visitors can experience Cumberland Island on day trips, taking guided tours of former Carnegie properties like the Dungeness Ruins and Plum Orchard Mansion, or exploring the island on their own by foot or bike.

Follow the links for more information in planning your ferry reservations, island planning and 50th commemoration events, and for your mainland stay and dining.

Published: February 2023
Written by: Laura Scholz
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