By Sam Burnham
The next step on our road trip carried us to the mouth of the Savannah River.
Situated between the north and south channels of the river is Cockspur Island. The island is connected to US 80 by a small bridge crossing the south channel. It's not a large island by any means and people often don't even make a distinction between Cockspur and the more developed and well known Tybee Island. But Cockspur is significant. It is currently the location of a United States Coast Guard station and Ft. Pulaski National Monument.
As with many of our national monuments, the name doesn't quite cover it all. But we'll start with the fort to give it its due. Ft. Pulaski is one of roughly two dozen masonry forts that the government commissioned in the 1830's to defend the Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas. Savannah was an important port and Pulaski was built to defend the shipping lanes in the Savannah River from attack.
A young Army engineer was sent to Pulaski for his first assignment after graduation from West Point. This young man, a Virginian by the name of Robert E. Lee, helped survey, design, and construct this massive fort. Ft. Pulaski is a bit of an engineering marvel. Cypress pilings were driven into the coastal wetlands. The foundation was built over these pilings and then over 25,000,000 bricks were used to build walls that average between five and 11 feet thick, of solid brick. Despite the weight of the structure, there has never been a crack in the fort from foundation settling. In over 170 years the fort has settled less on its foundation than the modern visitor center has in around 40 years.
The fort was heavily damaged by artillery fire from Union forces set up on Tybee Island. During this first major encounter between rifled cannon and a masonry fort, new technology proved to be superior. This was led to the end of the masonry fort age as military leaders found that the structures could not withstand the the force of the rifled guns.
But the site is not just about the fort.
Cockspur Island is an interesting natural location. The meeting of a major river, the coastal wetlands, and the Atlantic Ocean provides excellent opportunities to encounter wildlife, take in beautiful scenery, and enjoy an outing of fishing or hiking.
The fort's moat was designed to replenish the water in it with each incoming tide. The constant refresh of brackish water has created a miniature ecosystem that encircles the fort. Fish, turtles, crab, even alligator use the moat for a home. Viewing these animals involves merely looking in the moat.
The ruins of the Old North Pier are just a short distance further down the trail. This pier was where Wesley's ship landed. It was a bustling trade and transportation center in the 18th century. Ships from England and elsewhere brought goods and passengers to the new colony of Georgia and this was the first pier available to those ships. The Yamacraw Bluff site of the then new city of Savannah lay several more miles upstream.
The trail also takes visitors past Battery Hambright, which was built during the Spanish American War to defend the north channel against mine laying ships. While the battery never saw action, it does add to the military history of the site and makes for an interesting pit stop along the trail for an elevated view and maybe a photo.
The shipping in the area created the need for navigational assistance. In 1848 a 46 foot tall lighthouse was lit for the first time at the far end of the island. The brick structure marked the opening of the south channel. I've always had an affinity for lighthouses. In this area, Tybee Island Light gets the attention and the press. But there is just something about a little lighthouse perched on a sandbar that completely disappears at high tide, leaving the tower jutting up out of the waves. It would be easy to overlook Cockspur Island light, especially with its lofty cousin visible in the distance.
In the early 29th century, all shipping was moved to the north channel and Cockspur Light was abandoned. Over the years the elements took their toll and it looked like this brave little lighthouse was doomed. But preservation efforts have been intensified recently and it looks like this lighthouse will be with us for some time. Here's hoping.
Tybee Island is just a short drive from this site. There are plenty of local eateries, shopping, museums, and, of course, the beach. This area is just a short drive from Savannah and makes for a great stop on a coastal road trip.
This is the third and final post in a three-part series on travel destinations in Georgia.
This wasn't the post I had originally intended to write. This was planned to be a post on some out of the way places that we have enjoyed in Georgia. But fate has intervened. This past weekend found the curator and managing editor on a full-blown traditional Sunday drive. During the outing we found all sorts of interesting things to see and do. At certain points, we even felt far from home but we were never more than 15 miles from our front door. Afterward, I was reminded of a pivotal moment that helped lead to the creation of this very website.
That fateful moment of inspiration came from a common drive. Might have even been a commute of sorts, I don't recall. What I do remember was coming over the crest of a hill I traveled quite often, a sight I had seen hundreds of times.
It looked sort of like this:
And that time it struck me differently than it ever had before. I saw it as a beautiful view. And in that moment I realized that I was finally noticing something that had been under my nose for years. I made up my mind to look for beauty every day. I vowed to look for the historic, the meaningful, the symbolic, and important elements in even the most mundane of days. I realized that as much as I like to travel and explore that I will have wasted a grand opportunity if I do not learn to cherish the grand world around me.
That leads me to this challenge: I want you to write this part. Take in the sunrise. Notice the detail in a old structure. A painting. A beautiful piece of music. An old couple holding hands as they walk down the sidewalk. A historic marker you've never stopped to read. The Etsy shop of a Twitter follower. A locally owned restaurant, bookstore, or hardware store. And yes, by all means, an old Victorian cemetery.
Notice it. Stop what you are doing for just a minute. Take a picture. Take notes. Write a poem or a song. Maybe a voice memo. Shoot a video. Whatever you feel inspired to do. If you want to keep it to yourself, that's fine. If you want to go to my contact page and share it with me, that's fine too. Who knows? It might wind up on one of these pages (with attribution of course). You don't even have to be from Georgia.
So happy hunting. I hope you notice something new in the near future that you've never noticed before.
This is the second post in a three-part series on travel destinations in Georgia.
Previously I shared some of the state parks in Georgia that help tell the state's story. There are many more sites like those that help to tell that story. But there are sites outside the state park system that help to tell the story as well. Georgia is blessed with several sites preserved by the US National Park Service. In continuing the theme of telling Georgia's story in travel, I'd like to use this post to share some of the great sites in Georgia from the federal park system.
1. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is one park that has two sites. The park straddles the Tennessee line and encompasses the Battles for Chattanooga in the War Between the States. It is the oldest and the largest of the National Military Parks in the nation. The portion in Georgia is the Chickamauga Battlefield which is immediately south of Ft. Oglethorpe.
On the grounds of Chickamauga you will find 1400 monuments to the men of both armies that fought on the 19th & 20th of September, 1863, the bloodiest two-day battle in the entire war. Many of the memorials can be found via driving tours, including the 85-feet-tall Wilder Monument. Other monuments can be accessed though a network of hiking trails that will carry you through the forests to the locations of some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
The park offers various living history demonstrations throughout the year. The visitor center has excellent interpretive exhibits and a large collection of historic weapons. A knowledgeable staff is on hand to answer questions or give directions. Maps for the hiking trails and driving tours are also available at the visitor center.
2. Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon preserves the remnants of a Mississippian culture that inhabited Georgia over 1000 years ago. Elaborate earthworks remain including the original floor of the Earth Lodge, the center of tribal political and social life. The visitor center includes hands-on exhibits that offer a unique learning experience to adults and kids alike. Ocmulgee was staffed with one of the most knowledgeable rangers I've encountered.
The mounds can be accessed by walking or driving. A partnership with Mercer University is developing a smartphone app for the site which will hopefully be available in the near future. Ocmulgee National Monument is in the process of upgrading from a national monument to a national park.
3. Ft. Pulaski National Monument is on Cockspur Island, just off Tybee Island. The fort was named for The Polish hero of the American Revolution, Casimir Pulaski. The fort was built in the 1930's. The construction was overseen by a young little-known West Point graduate, 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee. The fort is built in a sandy coastal area atop cypress pilings drove deep into the ground. In that time the fort has settled less on its foundation than the neighboring visitor center built about 140 years later.
Besides being a major coastal fortification in the War Between the States, Ft. Pulaski holds the designation as being the first masonry fort to be proven obsolete. The weapons of the mid-19th century were able to easily penetrate walls once thought to be unbreachable. The Union siege in 1862 was short lived due to the unexpected effectiveness of the guns. This triggered the end of an era in American warfare. The scars of the last battle are still visible on the forts seaward walls. The fort later served as a prisoner of war detention site. Be sure to check the moat for alligators.
Besides the fort itself, the monument is also home to the Cockspur Lighthouse. The current tower was lit from 1856-1909 and was darkened only during the war. It replaced the 1839 tower that was damaged by a hurricane. In some form, Cockspur Light has marked the opening of the south channel of the Savannah River for 175 years.
The monument is also home to a marker commemorating John Wesley's first arrival in Georgia.
4. Andersonville National Historic Site is in the tiny town of Andersonville. The site is best known for its commemoration of the notorious Camp Sumter that housed thousands of POWs during the War Between the States. Today that camp's history is interpreted by monuments, the surviving earthworks, and reconstructed segments of the walls.
The Andersonville National Cemetery began with Confederates burying the bodies of deceased prisoners and continues today with burials of veterans of American wars. There is an audio driving tour of the cemetery that is available at the information desk in the museum. The tour covers various points of interest and encourages visitors to stop and explore.
The traditional visitor center is housed in the National Prisoner of War Museum. While Camp Sumter is covered in the museum, there is also information on Union forts such as Camp Douglas, Rock Island, and Point Lookout. The Museum also covers the stories of American POW's from all wars. This adds broader perspective to this Civil War site.
5. Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is just a short drive from Andersonville. It is dedicated to the life and service of the 39th President of the United States. The site is near the only official Georgia Welcome Center not located on a state line. Any trip to the site should start there. Free Georgia peanuts are available and the on-duty staff provide maps and information about the site.
The museum is the preserved Plains High School, where Jimmy and Rosalynn attended. The facility is specifically dedicated to the Carters but also paints a portrait of rural Southern life in the 1930's and 40's. The boyhood farm is the home Jimmy Carter lived in during his childhood. The outbuildings are still intact and rangers raise crops and animals just as Earl Carter did some 80 years ago. The train depot houses campaign specific items, as it served as campaign headquarters. Its amazing to see how rural folks won a presidential campaign in an abandoned railroad depot...because it was the only available building with indoor plumbing.
And while the site has certain points of interest, the entire town is included. Plains is a wonderfully preserved agrarian southern Georgia town. It is a delicious piece of the South of our past, preserved for future generations. That fact alone makes a stop worthwhile.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire