Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Cumberland Island- did we or didn’t we??

Thursday April 17, 2014
Walkabout Camp & RV Park
Woodbine, GA




Up Early and On the Road



We’re up before the sunrise.  Of course that’s not saying much since the sun doesn’t come up until 7am.  But anyway.  It’s a grey, cloudy and windy day.  I’m wondering whether we should do this or not.  But this is our only chance this trip since tomorrow is guaranteed 100% chance of rain, rain is likely on Saturday and we leave for South Carolina on Sunday.

So off we go, on the road to the Cumberland National Park Visitor Center to be first in line to get on the waiting list for any of the 20 spots on the Land and Legacy tour that open up.   We don’t consider what we will do if there is only one spot available. 




We arrive at 7:35 and wait for them to open at 8:00  





We are indeed the first folks in a line and the first name on the waiting list.   Well done!   And for our efforts we are rewarded with a bill of $60 for the two of us to take the 45 minute ferry over and back and the 4 hour tour via van.

We then wait another 45 minutes for the boat to begin boarding.

If you get the idea that it is chilly and windy based on the way we are dressed, you would be correct!




Cumberland Island here we come again.

After an orientation about the two stops and which one to use if you want to see what, and where the limited water and restrooms are, we board our boat the Cumberland Queen II.  We grab a nice table seat inside and share it with a Jacksonville University student and her professor who are coming over to arrange a field study on the diamondback terrapin.  We chat for a while and then she goes to read abstracts and David peruses a luxury yacht magazine.  Amazing that these are really the only magazines on the boat.   15 million, 30 million for a yacht.  How the upper upper percent lives.









Thankfully, things have not changed a bit since we were here last.




We arrive on the island and gather up at the Ranger Station which was originally a model home for a developer who intended to put 400 luxury homes on the north end of the island.  If you’ve never been to Cumberland you will love the beautiful live oaks that cover the island.   They add a real air of mystery.









We are going straight up to the northern end of the Island from Sea Camp. 


That’s from right to left on this map,.


We are soon on our way down the “main road” which is a sand path of varying widths.  The only vehicles allowed on the island are those of the park service and those who have “retained rights”. 



Roy is a great history teacher.  This is why I have loved history.  It’s the stories.



From our driver guide, Park Ranger Roy Williams, we learn that land issues form a central theme of Cumberland Island National Seashore.  Acquisition of the land, defense against subdivision and negotiation of unusual and complex retained-use estates have politicized and complicated all park management issues. 

In order to put the park together in the early 1970’s the park service negotiated with all landowners.  All but two were willing to sell if they could retain rights to live there until the death of “the owner”.  Some of course then put the ownership of their land in the name of their youngest child.



But over time quite a few of these pieces have become park property and eventually all but two will be in the national seashore.  Some owners with rights have driving rights, some don’t.  Most owners are only here very seasonally.  But the Greyfield Inn operates year round and shuttles its people in pick up trucks with open bench seating in the back.  We saw several of these and I wish now I’d taken a picture of them.  



The roads are narrow. 

If you meet someone coming the other way, someone has to find a place to pull off.  This happened to us more times than I was expecting.  But it was only a few days before Easter and Greyfield had guests and some residents were here for the “early spring”.  Maintenance people were working on Plum Orchard as well.






There are magnificent old live oaks along the road. But bumping along at about 20 miles an hour doesn’t make for very good pictures of them.The road starts out quite wide actually and we pass walkers and bikers also on their way north.  You are not permitted to bring your own bikes on the ferry.  There really is no room.  But you can rent them on the island.  I think I overheard that they are $16 for the day.  The bikes looked nice with wide tires for the sand.  Roy tells us that this is the perfect time to drive or ride on the road as there has been rain in the last few days.  Well that’s an understatement if I ever heard one.  He says in the summer the cars and bikes get stuck in the fine “sugar sand”.

We are on our way to the very top of the island, the north end, 16.5 miles away.  The island is 17.5 miles long but we are not at the southern most point when we start.  That was the first ferry stop at the dock for the Dungeness Ruins.  We visited there on our last trip to the island.



The road narrows the further north we go.



We bumpty bump over wooden bridges that cross several creeks coming in from the sound.   They look like great places to paddle but given that the island is only about 3 miles wide at its widest point, that isn’t much paddling even if they go all the way from the Cumberland Sound to the Atlantic.  Still they are really lovely and it’s near high tide as we go by.  I’d like to see them at low tide too.  Guess that will require another trip.  Winking smile







On our drive, Ranger Roy has been telling us the early history of the island as it is a part of the State of Georgia including the Native Americans, English General James Oglethorpe and the island’s connection to the revolutionary war and war heroes Nathaniel Green and Light Horse Harry Lee (Father of the south’s own Robert E).  Roy really knows the details. It is very clear he has done some research and likes telling the stories.  It’s great as we go bouncing along.

We stop for a moment by the  Stafford House which is an integral part of the history of the island but is still occupied.  It will revert to the park when the present occupant dies. I’m unable to get any pictures worth much of the house from where we are required to view it.  It will be rehabed and maintained as historically significant by the park service once it is in their hands.




Even though we can’t see it well, I notice a couple of interesting things about the Stafford House.



One is the tabby construction of the “fence” and the other is chimneys.  I’ve seen Tabby before and find it lovely and interesting.  Roy tells a slightly different story about it here.  He says the slaves on Cumberland Island were all from the Sierra Leone area in West Africa and brought the construction method with them.  It fit quite nicely here since there were large Native American Indian shell middens on the island to supply the shells and plenty of sand.   Tabby is made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells and ash.



The Stafford House history begins in the early 19th century when Robert Stafford got some of the land of Nathaniel Green and began to buy up other properties so that by 1830 he controlled 1360 acres with 148 slaves. Stafford never married but had 6 children by one of his mulatto  slaves, Elizabeth Bernardey, and managed to sneak his family off to Groton, Connecticut for freedom before the beginning of the Civil War.  The story of how they managed during the time of the fugitive slave act is really interesting. 



Come take the tour and hear the details. 


If you can’t wait until you can get here, then read the book Strong Women, Wild Horses which I’ve mentioned before.  I knew all the history before taking the tour from reading this interesting book but I wanted to see the places themselves and it was great hearing it all again.





Stafford died in 1877 and his heirs sold the property to Thomas and Lucy Carnegie (partner in steel with his brother Andrew).  All that remains of Stafford’s plantation house is a ruins.  The current house was built by the Carnegies who kept the name.  Wow that’s a lot of info on a house you didn’t even see much of a picture of.







We reach The Settlement at the north end of the island a more difficult place to get to without this tour.



After that stop we zip on the rest of the way to the north end where “The Settlement” was and is.  In the 1890s, "The Settlement" was established at the north end of the island as a residential area for black workers, as Georgia had passed laws requiring racial segregation of housing and public facilities. The First African Baptist Church, established in The Settlement in 1893, was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is one of the few remaining structures of this community.  It became famous when John Kennedy Jr. was married here.  




One of the original houses in the area has been “updated” with bathrooms which was a requirement when these tours were begun amid great controversy since the upper end of the island was designated Wilderness.   There is a great deal of interesting information about all of this land controversy in multiple publications and books.  It’s quite fascinating.  The arguments people can get into trying to keep their space for themselves or to protect it for the natural species.



I wasn’t expecting to find part of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor here.

The little house with the restrooms retains the original paint and when I ask about the brilliant colors.  Ranger Roy tells me that these were the colors chosen and used by the Gullah Geechee people who lived her.  These people are descendants of the slaves brought from Sierra Leone in the 1700’s to work the coastal plantations.  

Because these people were able to maintain their homes in the coastal area due to its undesirability as swampland until recently, they have also retained their African culture to a large extent.  In 2006, Congress designated a Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor which runs from Wilmington NC along the coast to Jacksonville, FL.  Here’s a link if you’d like to know more about this






Directly across from the Gulla house is the lovely simple church.



  It was built both times by the people of the Settlement with saw mill ends and second hand wood.  Each of the 11 benches inside was built by the family who used it on Sunday.  The windows were painted white on the outside and with pastel colors on the inside to give a stained glass effect.  On the alter is a folk art cross lashed together and an old Bible open to Luke.











The day is full of surprises.  I wasn’t expecting Carol Ruckdeschel’s house to be so near by.




David takes some shots of the home of a Strong Woman whom I admire even though she was totally opposed to these park service tours coming up through the wilderness section of the island.  Carol Ruckdeschel is right I believe and if the tours weren’t here, I would have gotten out my backpack and spent a few days to walk the 17 miles up and back in order to see this area.  

She has a life right to a house she acquired over 30 years ago now and has made her life’s work becoming an expert on the sea turtle. 

Her story is a very interesting one and was covered in the book Strong Women, Wild Horses as well as in a controversial biography coming out this May.  I would love to meet her but she has been known to bring a shotgun to the door and doesn’t like to be disturbed.  I wouldn’t have taken these pictures even though I knew her house was there, it felt too much like paparazzi.  But David only knew I admired her and when he’d done it, I was glad to see them and show them to you. 




She lives off of the land and only leaves the island for speaking engagements about her work.  There is plenty of seafood, fish, deer, grapes, salad greens and other foods on the island.  She may raise chickens, I forget.   She has orange and grapefruit trees.  The sign says Please do not pick the fruit. 

Carol is now in her late 60’s or perhaps early 70’s and her home will go to the Park Service when she dies.  I wonder if they will maintain it for its historic interest and her devotion to the ecology of the island and its creatures particularly the Sea Turtle.




Some of the settlement houses which haven’t been been removed are deteriorating.  I guess the park service feels they don’t have “historical significance”.  But Roy tells us that Jimmy Carter visited in this home fairly often and invited its owner to his inauguration in the White House.








We are as far north as we can go so it’s turn around time.  We’ll drive back down the single road to catch the stops we didn’t visit on the way up.  By now, it is nearly 1:00 and our time for this tour is about half over so I’ll  leave the other half for tomorrow as this post is quite long enough.  

See you then for “the rest of the story”.


  1. That model home looks very much like my grand parents home. It was the most fancy in the county back in the day. Looks like a fun educational tour.

    Raining down here again and this time we have thunder.

  2. Oh, I’ve been waiting for this post for so long. Loved every word/picture of it. I think Rich and I visited in the early 80s—I don’t remember vans being there. We did a walking tour and then went out on the beautiful white beach. I think I told you, I met an author on the ferry—very interesting lady. Rode a bike around the whole perimeter of the US after retiring from the CIA. How’s that for an exciting life. So glad you got back to Cumberland and can’t wait for the next “chapter” of this story. :)

  3. That is a place on my 'bucket list' has always been interesting to me. love those trees.... am wondering if you will get to the beach?

  4. Great tour. Great photos. Looking for the second half of this story.

  5. Fascinating. If we stay on the east coast next summer, this is on my list!

  6. Shotgun greetings? No thank you. Not my kind of tourist attraction. Eek!

    Great history tour, looking forward to the next installment. And waiting to see if you're going to buy one of those fancy yachts! ;c)

  7. Interesting. I think I'll try to find thst book.

  8. I knew you would get on the tour; your determination is undeniable. The story about Carol intrigued me the most. I look forward to reading the book which is now on my list. So glad you were able to take this tour.

  9. Good for you to get on that tour! Nice tour for sure. Love the part about Strong Woman, Wild Horses. What an interesting life she leads!

  10. Oh I loved this post. One of these days we WILL get to Cumberland Island. We've tried twice - once, rain got us and the other time, we determined it was simply too hot to enjoy.

  11. Interesting tour ... the red house photo is my favorite ... the deterioration adds to its character.

  12. What a lovely place...I'd love to be there! Thanks for taking the time to share all the history...Happy Easter!! XO

  13. Glad to read that you got the tour!! Lots of history there and I know you were pleased that the bugs seemed to be cooperating;o)) Thanks for taking us along!!

  14. I am delighted to see your post about Cumberland Island. It couldn't have come at a better time as we have reservations to visit it next week. We would like very much to take the tour but because of our traveling companion, our Golden Retriever, we are unable to spend that length of time on the island at this time. Maybe in the future. I am surprised though that you & David didn't camp at Crooked River State Park while in the vicinity. If you've not checked it out, you should. It's a lovely facility right on the tidal river with views of the salt marshes. Looking forward to the follow up blog.- Gayle

  15. Wonderful tour! You certainly had a fantastic day. Thanks for the information and taking us along:)

  16. Wonderful tour, Sherry -- you have the most amazing memory for details! Cumberland Island is another on our list of places to visit next spring -- I'm happy that you're giving us such a grand preview! I wish the Park Service would preserve those old homes, especially any of historical significance. I think the old homes add an interesting human element to the landscape.

  17. Great tour so far. NPS struggles with the protect and preserve mission especially when residents are thrown into the mix.

  18. Finally...Cumberland is so interesting - I'm glad you got on the tour! I recognized a few of the stories from the book :) Such a history and gorgeous oaks! That does look and sound like a place worth fighting for! Great post. I really felt I was along for the bumping bump ride :)

  19. Pretty interesting. Have to put this on our list of things to see when we go to Savannah. Reminds me of Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays in Australia.


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