Sam Burnham, Curator
St. Marys has more than its share of old homes. The city is filled with private homes that are identified by a sign out front announcing the family historically associated with the home as well as the year of construction, sometimes appropriated. There are large homes, small homes, and some in between.
We were fortunate to spend the week in such a place. The Captain Morse House was built in 1905 by a pilot captain. His job would have been to guide ships into the channel to safely reach the port. He also built a similar house across the river on Amelia Island.
Looking at his home in St. Marys, you can get a feel for who he might have been. The home is roomy with beautiful craftsmanship, particularly the staircase. He was obviously a successful man. But this is not a planter’s home; it’s a town home. The location is perfect for a pilot captain. With just a walk of a block and a half you’re on the waterfront.
Today the home offers visitors an excellent location for a getaway or vacation. Right next door is a great antique and vintage shop. Across the street is the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum. You’re about two blocks from the eateries on the waterfront, just a bit further to the waterfront park. The Cumberland Island Ferry is just a short walk as well. There is no major site in the historic district that isn’t within a 10-15 minute walk. More than once I sat on the back porch with a cool drink and enjoyed the live music from Fulfiod’s Fish House right next door.
There are four bedrooms, two are furnished with two twins each. The other two offer kings. So eight people can be accommodated and the fold out sofa in the living room could comfortably make room for a ninth. There is a full kitchen with a farmhouse sink. The washer and dryer are in the kitchen as well. The three full baths are enough to accommodate a large family.
The only negative worth mentioning is that someone saw fit to plop down a more modern building next door which hinders the view of the water from the upstairs porch. But that building houses the aforementioned antique store and Fulford’s Fish House, so it’s not a total loss.
I also think I’m a bit spoiled by our 30A vacation where the home came with complimentary bicycles. This would be a nice offer here but rentals are available from a local business.
This is is a great location for a family looking to enjoy the St. Marys area. Roomy, comfortable, classic, and convenient. The Captain Morse House is a great option for your visit. The home is currently listed for sale...which might interest you as well...
Sam Burnham, Curator
For thousands of years people have come and gone on Cumberland Island. Native tribes, Spanish missionaries, plantation owners, African slaves, and the Carnegie family are just some of the people who have called Cumberland home. All of these people are gone now, leaving the island to its natural tendencies, with a few additions. The largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, Cumberland is protected from major development. The high rises and strip malls that have ruined so many coastal areas will never take root here.
What visitors will find on Cumberland is an impressive mixture of history and nature. The two blend so well in places that the lines between the two are blurred, if they exist at all.
From the Ice House, an oak avenue, similar to but not quite as grand as Wormsloe, leads past a As the trail neared the opening at the ranger station and the Ice House Museum, we heard a familiar sound. A wild turkey gobbled. We found him wandering just a few paces from the porch of the ranger station. The Ice House Museum was undergoing some renovations, including exhibits but it still offers some details on the history of the island. Visitors learn of the settlement of General Nathanael Greene, continued by his widow and her subsequent husband, and eventually by members of the Carnegie family.clearing where it is believed the Spanish and natives interacted. The avenue leads to the gates of Dungeness.
When you round that last curve and catch sight of the ruins it’s striking how vast the home was. Obviously, it doesn’t get any smaller as you approach. The photos of the house in its prime made me sad that only ruins remain. But there’s an odd beauty to the ruins. They have an almost mystic appeal. The home itself is now but a ghost, just as its owners and their guests are now gone. Rather than ornate gardens and cocktail parties the grounds are now dotted with grazing horses, the offspring of the Carnegie steeds. While their predecessors served the Carnegies, Dungeness now belongs to them. At 700 pounds, these beauties allow pictures from safe distances but approaching them is discouraged and unwise.
The ruins are surrounded by support structures: servant housing, the carriage house, the greenhouse, the barn. Trails wind you past them while a phone tour tells the story of each.
The family cemetery includes a marker on the former grave of Gen. “Lighthorse Harry” Lee. Lee served with George Washington and Nathanael Greene. He died while visiting the Greenes and his body remained buried buried here for about a century before it was moved to the Lee Chapel in Lexington, Virginia to be buried alongside his son, Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The trail then winds winds along dunes and becomes a boardwalk through the marsh. This is an excellent location to look for shorebirds, alligators, and other wildlife. We heard the songs of the cicadas, katydids, a probably a bunch of other musical insects. Here the only sign of humanity is the boardwalk. You’re immersed in a semi aquatic Eden of sorts. As we left the boardwalk to cross the dunes a clap of thunder rolled across the sky. A wild turkey responded with a gobble. The only other time I’d heard this happen in person was on a hunt in Heard County several years ago. I turned and saw the bird strutting about 70 yards to our right at the base of the dunes. It seemed strange to hear multiple gobbles that late in the year but this is an atypical place.
Dungeness Beach is unlike any I’ve ever seen. For a mile and a half the trail follows the beach sand. There are tons of shells and visitors often find shark teeth here. Sea turtles nest on this beach and we saw several horseshoe crabs. There are no trees, no buildings, no man made anything. We encountered two other people hiking in the other direction and only saw one other person. We did see a half dozen wild horses standing on the dunes eating sea oats. That’s a crime for humans but there aren’t many people willing to try to arrest a 700 pound wild horse.
The black and white markers signal appropriate beach crossings. We found the markers and made our way back into the maritime forest. It is hard to believe that some of these oaks are second growth but the Island was mostly cleared for farming and these trees have grown since then. This stretch leads back to the dock.
Despite seeing maritime forest, the ruins of Dungeness, the marsh, and a mile and a half of beach, we saw just a small fraction of this beautiful island. This strip of land serves as a respite, a sanctuary to escape civilization for a spell. But it also protects civilization by forming a shield against hurricanes and other storms. The land is a type of sponge that absorbs storm surge and also acts as a wall against waves and undertow. Protecting this land from development ensures that those protections survive. The over development of Long Island and Staten Island kept them from protecting New York from Hurricane Sandy. There’s a lesson there for us.
Overall, this outing is well worth the time and the price of a ferry ride. We hope to return to see more of the island in the future.
Sam Burnham, Curator
In the early days of St. Marys, the waterfront was a place of commerce. As a port of entry the town was a destination, as well as a starting point for vessels carrying passengers and goods.
Today the vessels are smaller, more of a private variety. They sit anchored in the river. There are also the ferries carrying visitors to Cumberland Island.
The waterfront is vibrant and alive. At present, there is construction on St. Marys Street that causes a small inconvenience to vehicle traffic. But the waterfront area is easy to walk through and the inconvenience to pedestrians is minimal. Once the work has ended, pedestrians will have plenty of room to move up and down the waterfront. Along this street you’ll find several restaurants, the submarine museum, the Cumberland Island visitors center, a kayak rental, some good ice cream, a waterfront pavilion, and the waterfront park.
It is refreshing to see so many local businesses operating there. Many of them have been open for some time and come highly recommended by locals and previous visitors alike. There are no national chains in this area.
The pavilion offers beautiful views of the river and harbor area. There are several benches for those who need to refresh from a walk around town or for those simply wanting to sit and take in the beauty. ABG contributor Jennifer Perren says she used to go to the pavilion to think and write.
On the evening of our arrival in St. Marys there was live music in the riverfront park. People were sitting on the porch style swings or in their own lawn chairs to enjoy the music, the atmosphere, and a beautiful sunset. Some danced and sang along with the band. Many of these were local folks but some come from other towns. We spoke to a couple from nearby Fernandina Beach, Florida who said they often ride up for the evening.
The park has brick walkways and a fountain shaded by broad palms. There are several porch style swings facing the water. A Little Free Library contains some books for those looking for one. A pier just put into the water and offers good fishing spots as well as perfect views of sunset.
What St. Marys has done is create an attraction with their downtown. It is a location people want to visit. They didn’t do it with tourist traps or theme parks or some fake or kitschy facade. There aren’t any go cart tracks or mini golf courses. They took what they had, made the most of it, developed wisely, and watched it work.
Part of the beauty of St. Marys is that downtown is alive but it isn’t overrun. The crowds are healthy and pleasant. There are some families and also a more mature bunch. This isn’t a loud, vulgar, or raucous crowd. It’s festive but pleasant. The morning sun rises on a town that isn’t vandalized or trash strewn.
That being said, don’t everyone run down there at once. Y’all take turns and mind your manners. This is one of the best kept secrets in Georgia because it’s a secret. So don’t go down there acting a fool. Enjoy St. Marys responsibily. Oh, and have fun.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire