20 July 2010

The Ruins of Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island lies off the coast of Georgia and is the largest of the State’s barrier islands at just under 18 miles in length.  Virtually no one lives on the island all year round these days but at the southern end of the island you will find Dungeness, once owned by the famously rich Carnegie family.  The house is now in ruins but perhaps if you listen closely you might hear the strains of a ghostly Charlston.

There are few visitors to the island.  No bridge joins the island with the mainland and as such visitors must get there via a boat ferry.  Yet the house echoes its former glories in the way that the magnificent ruins of Rome do, somewhat eerily but with a stillness that can provoke thoughtful musings on the fleeting nature of life.  Where this mansion once housed a family of nine children and two hundred servants, only ruins remain.  Here is the story of the house they named Dungeness.

If you want a microcosm of the history of the United States, you could do worse than to study the history of Cumberland Island and the Dungeness mansion.  Wars with the British, Civil War, Emancipation, fabulous wealth and economic crashes all feature in its fascinating tale.  While only three hundred people are allowed on the island at any one time, the place is well worth a visit.

Although the current ruins do not go back so far, the origin of the name Dungeness goes back to 1733 when the English General James Oglethorpe (left) alighted there.  He founded a hunting lodge on the island (which was named after the eponymous Duke back in England) which he named after a headland in the English county of Kent.

After the English defeated the Spanish in 1742 the need for the island as a strategic point of defense became redundant and now no trace of the lodge or the associated forts survive.    Nathaniel Greene (left) bought land on the island in 1783 in order to harvest its oak tree but he expired only three years later.  It was his wife who on her remarriage ten years later built the first mansion, named nostalgically after Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge.

Coincidentally, the British used the mansion as their headquarters during the three years of the War of 1812.  Although the war was very much prompted by the actions of the British on their arrival on Cumberland Island they promptly freed all of the slaves who lived there. When the British left you can guess what happened.  Records of 1846 show that there were over 400 slaves living on the island as well as 36 white people.

Slavery ended after the end of the Civil War and like many plantation owners the descendents of the Greenes found that it was no longer profitable when they had to pay wages.  The family moved and Dungeness was left to its own devices.  It burned to the ground in 1866.  This, unfortunately, would not be the last time that this fate would befall a house built on this spot.

Thomas M Carnegie (seen on the left with his older, more famous brother Andrew) and his wife Lucy bought land and started to build a new Dungeness in 1884.  It was inspired by castles that the couple had seen in Scotland and although Thomas never saw it finished (like the unfortunate Mr Greene he died before it was finished) his wife lived in Dungeness with his huge brood of nine children for many years.  When complete, it must have been (after her family of course) her pride and joy.

Yet only decades later, this is all that would remain.

As well as the fifty nine rooms there were swimming pools, a golf course and many other small buildings in which lived their 200 plus servants. The last recorded use of the Dungeness mansion was in 1929 when one of Lucy’s daughters tied the knot there. So started the road to ruim, as it were.  Outbuildings were left to their own devices.

1929 – and all that.  The Great Depression meant the end of the Carnegies on the island although they continued to own it, the left it vacant.  Then, one night in 1959 a disgruntled poacher who had been shot in the leg by the housekeeper for trespass purportedly burned the house to the ground. Since then the mansion and surrounding buildings and quarters have slowly gone the way of all things.

Even the cars have been left to rust where they were last parked.

So the ruins stand to this day, testament to a long and colorful history.  Descendents of the original families still live or holiday on this island to this day but there has never been any attempt to rebuild Dungeness.  Perhaps its history is a little too littered with misfortune for anyone to countenance such a proposition.

Read the blog of a Cumberland Island resident - The Cumberland Island Quilt Chick (great name for a blog)

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Additional Image Credits
Oglethorpe - Wikimedia
Nathaniel Greene
Thomas M Carnegie