St Mary’s Island Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island is a barrier island located off the coast of Georgia in the United States. It is the largest and southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands, and it is part of the Cumberland Island National Seashore, which was established in 1972. The island has a rich history, with evidence of human habitation dating back to at least 4500 BC. Its unique geography and ecology have made it a popular destination for visitors from around the world. The island features a variety of habitats, including salt marshes, maritime forests, and beaches. Its diverse wildlife includes wild horses, alligators, armadillos, sea turtles, bald eagles, and hundreds of species of birds. The feral horses are descended from Spanish Mustangs brought to the island by Spanish settlers in the 1700s and have been living on the island ever since. Today, these feral horses roam freely across Cumberland Island’s beaches and marshes.

If you are not planning to anchor out by the island, you will need to book a ferry ride to Cumberland Island. Make sure to book your tickets in advance as the ferry can get booked up quickly during peak season. The ferry leaves St Mary’s daily at 9am & 11:45am and returns from the island 10:15am, 2.45pm and 4:45pm.  Cost is $20 for adults, $19 for seniors (62+) and $15 Child (15 & under) for a one-way ticket (as of January 2023).  The ferry takes about 45 minutes each way.  Do not miss the last ferry off the island or you will be stuck until morning!  It’s also important to plan ahead and bring any supplies you might need, such as food and water. There is no food or water available on the island.  We would also recommend bug spray.  Once on the island, there is lots of history. The most prominent landmark are the Dungeness mansion ruins.  It was the home of several families significant in American history. James Oglethorpe first built a hunting lodge in 1736, that he named Dungeness. Oglethorpe named it Dungeness to the legacy of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, who had acquired 11,000 acres (45 km2) of island land in exchange for a bad debt. In 1803, after Greene’s death, his widow Catharine Littlefield Greene built a four-story tabbymansion over a Timucuanshell mound.

During the War of 1812 the island was occupied by the British, who used the house as a headquarters  In 1818 Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War and father of Robert E. Lee, stayed at the house until his death on March 25, 1818, cared for by Greene’s daughter Louisa.  Commander Lee was laid to rest in nearby cemetery with full military honors provided by an American fleet stationed at St. Marys, Georgia. The house was abandoned during the U.S. Civil War and burned in 1866.[4] 

In the 1880s the property was purchased by Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of Andrew Carnegie, who began to build a new mansion on the site. The 59-room Queen Anne style mansion and grounds were completed after Carnegie’s death in 1886. The main house comprises a portion of the larger historic district, which includes servant’s quarters, utility buildings, laundries, cisterns, and a variety of other structures.[6] The district forms a planned, landscaped ensemble. His wife Lucy continued to live at Dungeness and built other estates for her children, including GreyfieldStafford Plantation and Plum Orchard.  The Carnegie’s came to acquire almost 90% of the island but moved out of Dungeness in 1925.

In 1959 the Dungeness mansion was destroyed by fire, alleged to be arson. The ruins are today preserved by the National Park Service as part of Cumberland Island National Seashore. The island was donated to the Park Service in 1972 by the Carnegie family. 

Plum Orchard can be toured on your visit to the island.  The 45-minute tours are free and are offered on the hour. The mansion is  approximately 8 miles from the Sea Camp dock so plan accordingly especially if you are planning to tour at the end of the day and allow plenty of time for the walk back for the 4:45 ferry.

Greyfield has been transformed into a 15 room all-inclusive bed hotel. The mansion is historically furnished and does have a private ferry to and from Cumberland island.  The rooms start at $895/night for two people.  Three meals and happy hour hors d’oeuvres are included but alcohol is extra.

There are also plenty of beaches, hiking trails and wildlife viewing opportunities that will make your visit even more enjoyable. We took the 11:45 ferry and had plenty of time to explore the ruins and hike the island. Unfortunately, we did not have time to tour Plum Orchard but heard from many others on the ferry it would have been worth the 8 mile hike!

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