top of page

Shedding a light on rural Georgia: Cumberland Island

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

By Loren Lindler

Photo credit:

Georgia’s coastline is rich in many things – white, sandy beaches, tourist destinations, and some of the finest seafood restaurants you’ll ever visit. The state’s coast stretches from Tybee to Cumberland Island, and what’s in between has a history and experience that you can’t get just anywhere.

Though the coastline consists of five counties – Chatham, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, and Camden, three of these are considered to be rural according to the State Office of Rural Health.

As we take a look at what is in rural Georgia, we found that we are graced with three unique structures to shed a light on rural Georgia – lighthouses.

Standing tall on Cumberland and Sapelo Islands, three lighthouses prove to have a rich history, but continue to bring tourists to the islands each year. We wanted to take a closer look at the history of Cumberland Island that has shed its own light on rural Georgia.

Cumberland Island

The largest and southernmost barrier island in Georgia, Cumberland Island covers some 24,000 acres and has miles of secluded beaches. Located off the coast of St. Marys Island in Camden County, Cumberland Island gives guests a look at the Carnegie lifestyle. Thousands of live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, salty marshes, and wildlife inhabit the Island.

As history played out and life on Cumberland Island took shape, James Edward Oglethorpe laid out two forts in the 1730s, each on opposing ends of the Island, with intentions of serving as a trading post for the colonies. There was quite an abundance of resources – rice, sassafras, indigo, cotton, and timber.

Photo credit: WhereTraveler

Nathanael Greene, a general in the American Revolutionary War, purchased land on the island and had full intentions of using the timber resources available. The live oaks were ideal for building ships.

He passed shortly after and his widow, Catherine, built a home on the site we know as Dungeness. The estate was consumed by fire in 1959.

In the early 1880s, Thomas Morrison Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, came to the island and built their family’s estate, which is still standing today. As their children grew, they built homes on the island for them as well. They hired staff to work the fields and estates, employing more than 300 individuals. In the 1960s residency began to diversify as more families began to visit and the island became less exclusive.

Wild horses roam the island along with other wildlife. A short ferry ride will take you to there for a weekend of living like the Carnegies. If you intend to stay, there are two places to stay: at Greyfield Inn or at one of the National Park Service campsites.

Photo credit: Ocean Home Magazine

Greyfield Inn sits on 200 acres and was once the retreats of Thomas and Lucy. They built the home for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson, and, in 1962, the home was converted to an inn by Margaret’s daughter, Lucy Ferguson. The inn boasts the luxury of a grand hotel, but with the “hospitality and charm of a family home.”

Rooted in southern tradition and sticking to coastal heritage, guests have three meals a day, including breakfast, a picnic lunch, and a three-course dinner. With the ring of a dinner bell, guests are invited to a shared dinner table. The menu is influenced by the on-site garden and what is in season.

Though there is no shopping on the island, there is a variety of activities for visitors. Between fishing, guided walks, biking, kayaking, and relaxing on the beach, Cumberland Island has endless opportunities for exploration.

As you walk the paths, beaches, and roadways, you can leave your mark where Native Americans and Spanish and French explorers once resided.

Little Cumberland Island lies just north of Cumberland Island, the two separated by a marshy area. As history shows, both islands have been home to a lighthouse - one has been relocated, and the other is now privately owned.

Cumberland Island received its lighthouse first. In 1802, the U.S. Government ceded six acres of land from the state of Georgia. The land was designated for the construction of a lighthouse, but it was nearly 18 years before the lighthouse took shape and was built by Winslow Lewis.

In 1838, after 18 years of service, the lighthouse was dismantled brick by brick and reassembled on Florida’s Amelia Island. Before the relocation of the lighthouse, the decision was made to build a lighthouse on the northern end of Little Cumberland Island, where it could mark the entrance to St. Andrew Sound and the Satilla River.

On March 3, 1837, Congress appropriated $8,000 for a lighthouse on Little Cumberland Island. Just a few short months later, John and Charles Floyd purchased Little Cumberland Island from the heirs of General Nathaniel Greene for $1,000.

Photo credit:

In 1938, Joseph Hastings of Boston was contracted to build the Little Cumberland Island Lighthouse. Now standing at sixty-one-foot, the brick tower and keeper’s dwelling has been in the eyes of Georgians for decades, but since it is privately owned, the island is closed to the public.

The tower’s first keeper was David Thompson who held the position for eleven years while earning $400 annually. In 1849, William F. Kelley took over.

According to The Lighthouse Inn on Tybee Island, “in 1874, a brick wall was built around the lighthouse to protect it from the encroaching sea. The lighthouse was in service until 1915 when it was deactivated. The keeper’s house and all other light station buildings were demolished in 1968, but the tower remained. The tower was renovated in 1994 to 1998. The lighthouse was designated on the National Register of Historic Places on August 8, 1989.”

Cumberland Island has a rich history and there is so much to learn! You can check out their website for more information, or visit Explore Georgia to assist in planning your next trip.

Do you know of interesting experiences in rural, coastal counties? Share your ideas with us by sending us an email or messaging us on Facebook!


bottom of page