By Dorinda Dallmeyer

We may give a name to an island but we are defined by the imprint it leaves on us.

Humans have been part of the Ossabaw landscape for over 5,000 years. As they did on many other Georgia barrier islands, native peoples left behind evidence of their occupation in the form of shell middens, mounds constructed largely of oyster shell left over from seasonal feasting. These mounds also served as burial sites for their kin; in four Ossabaw mounds dated at 1100-1300 C.E., archaeologists found dogs interred there as well. Although much of the shell material later was mined to build tabby structures and to surface sandy roads, in places you still can stand on the remains of a midden bordering a tidal creek and contemplate a landscape across the centuries. Often there’s a clump of red buckeye growing close by; it’s not a coincidence. The native peoples used buckeye sap to stun fish so they were easy to harvest in these calm backwaters.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, coastal natives would have seen French sailing ships mapping the Georgia islands and naming its rivers after those of their homeland. Likewise, the Spanish continued to explore the islands of “La Florida.” Although they established a mission on St. Catherines Island to the south, on Ossabaw the Spanish seemed to be just passing through. So far, only a few pottery fragments from broken olive jars reveal their presence there.

Once the English settled their boundary wars with Spain, Ossabaw’s natural resources became a magnet for a series of landowners. Its live oaks were cut for valuable ship timbers; a few ships were even built on Ossabaw, right next to the lumber supply. Forests growing on the rich soils in the island’s interior were cleared first for indigo culture, a blue dyestuff highly prized by the British. Then, in the 1800s, four plantations switched crops to grow the pride of the Georgia coast: long-staple Sea Island cotton. Whatever the crop, plantation owners relied on the labor and skills of enslaved Africans. Today the restored slave dwellings at the North End site bear witness to the presence of the enslaved on the land.

During the Civil War, everyone abandoned Ossabaw for the relative security of the mainland. Once emancipated, the freedmen established their own mainland communities at Pinpoint and Sandfly, while a few returned to live and work on the island as Ossabaw changed hands many more times. Finally, in 1924, the entire island’s 26,000 acres were purchased for $150,000 to serve as a winter home for the Torrey family. While the fate of Ossabaw has lain in human hands for centuries, its conservation from 1959 well into the 21st century was guided and inspired by Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, who died on January 17, 2021 — on her 108th birthday.

In a conversation I had with her in 2003, Sandy said that at first, she hated Ossabaw. Each year, her family left Michigan to spend the winters at their home near Thunderbolt. Following a disastrous house fire, however, her parents bought Ossabaw and moved the family there. Sandy resented being separated from her Savannah friends so much that at the conclusion of the storm-tossed move aboard a dangerously listing boat, the 11-year-old spat on the ground as soon as her feet touched shore. Fortunately, after only a week or so, in her rambles with her brother, Sandy came to realize that she had found her place.

The Torrey-West family clearly was committed to conservation at Ossabaw. Spearheaded by Sandy, their philanthropic support was legendary in fostering interdisciplinary connections between art and science at this island retreat. In the mid-1970s, however, all that came under threat. Chatham County dramatically reappraised the island’s value, resulting in a proposed astronomical increase in property taxes. With the leadership of Governors Jimmy Carter and George Busbee, in 1978 the Georgia legislature created a new designation for protecting Georgia’s cultural and natural history: the State Heritage Preserve. At Ossabaw, the state took ownership of all 26,000 acres, while Sandy retained a life estate in the family home and the 23 acres immediately surrounding it. Sold by the Torrey-West family to the state for $8 million dollars — half its assessed value — Ossabaw was the first of today’s 122 State Heritage Preserves encompassing 335,000 acres across Georgia.

Under the umbrella of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the island is managed primarily by its Wildlife Resources Division. Ossabaw’s pristine shoreline plays a particularly important role in DNR’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program as illustrated by the 537 turtle nests counted there in 2020. Another major part of DNR’s role is the control of non-native species, specifically the Sisyphean task of reducing the population of wild hogs which severely disrupt both flora and fauna.

Another arm of management on the island is The Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF). Established in 1994, the Foundation was created to manage programming and facilities on the island and to serve as the steward of the Heritage Preserve. A challenge for raising public interest in the island is that getting to Ossabaw still takes an extended boat trip. To engage the public in their efforts, the Foundation provides a wide variety of programs to attract visitors, whether for a day trip or an overnight stay in the restored club-house. Restoration of the slave cabins has renewed connections between the Black community at Pinpoint and the island where their forebears lived. In keeping with Sandy West’s interest in the intersection of arts and conservation, TOIF offers writers’ retreats, nature study trips, workshops where people participate in the alchemy of creating indigo dye, and opportunities for artists to be inspired and create new works on-site.

Challenges still arise in maintaining the protected status of Ossabaw and other State Heritage Preserves. In the 2020 Georgia legislative session, an ill-conceived bill was introduced that would have permitted the state to subdivide and sell to any private individual or corporation up to 15 acres and structures for development in any Heritage Preserve. Unlike the 1978 Act, the proposed bill eliminated review of the transfer by the General Assembly and provided little opportunity for notice to the public. After an onslaught of phone calls, emails, news stories, and editorials, the bill failed when those promoting it could not find even one legislator willing to sponsor it in the State Senate. Without a doubt, good stewardship of Georgia’s Heritage Preserves has a statewide constituency who will respond in time of need.

In the wake of Sandy West’s passing, her home and 23 acres became part of the Heritage Preserve. Under a five-year renewable agreement between the state and TOIF, the Foundation now is coordinating and leading the management of the Torrey-West House and surrounding acreage. To support the maintenance and renovation of the house, several years ago TOIF created the Torrey-West Fund which continues to accept donations, especially memorial donations to honor Sandy West. In addition to grant support, TOIF hosts its signature fundraiser, the annual Ossabaw Island Pig Roast. Another popular opportunity for donors is the Adopt-an-Ossabaw-Donkey campaign. For many years the Sicilian donkeys on the island were an Ossabaw fixture. But from a herd of 11 introduced as pets for Sandy’s son, over time their numbers swelled to 150. To reduce the donkeys’ impact on the island’s vegetation, all but two have been re-homed on the mainland. But you still can “adopt” one, by making a donation to support conservation of the island’s natural environment.

In the words of TOIF’s executive director Elizabeth DuBose, “Sandy wanted Ossabaw’s visitors to be transformed by the island, not vice versa.” I experienced Ossabaw’s transformative power before I even met Sandy.

On my first visit, I came upon a weather-beaten but still majestic live oak. Although it had lost its crown, two great branches seemed to reach out like welcoming arms. Despite the passage of nearly a century since Sandy West’s arrival, the oak stands there in a pose both of praise and of summoning, asking our help to continue the stewardship of the only home it has ever known.

American Oystercatcher by Tim Keyes

New Outreach Programs Protect Critical Shorebird Habitats

By Abby Sterling, Ph.D.
Director of Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative

As you make your way to Ossabaw Island through winding tidal creeks, you pass shell rakes lining the marshes and sand bars and mudflats that are exposed at lower tides. Without an experienced boat captain some of these features can make the trip very difficult. But these obstacles that make navigation a challenge are critical habitats for shorebirds. At this time of year, we see our nesting species like American Oystercatchers incubating eggs or raising chicks on shell rakes. Migratory species like Red Knots and other sandpipers feed on horseshoe crab eggs and invertebrates that will become fuel to carry them to their Arctic nesting grounds. One way that we can protect these sensitive remote habitats is through engaging the specific audiences that access them.

Many of these remote places are sensitive to negative impacts when people, often unintentionally, disturb the shorebirds that rely on them. A primary goal of Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative is to reduce negative impacts for human recreational disturbance, and an effective way to do this is through targeted education and outreach. Over the last year and a half, we at Manomet have worked with partners including Katie Higgins of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to develop and launch the CARE program, which is an educational certification to share information with ecotourism groups on the Georgia Coast. Our primary goal is to reduce disturbance at remote places where guides might be taking groups. We completed the first year of the CARE course with 17 participants in the first cohort. Guides and owners of ecotourism outfits from Savannah to Brunswick participated in an online learning platform, weekly live lectures, and an in-person field day component to earn their certification.

Another important way we are seeking to protect the more remote habitats that shorebirds rely on between the mainland and the barrier islands like Ossabaw is to work with recreational boaters who might visit places like Raccoon Key or other sandbars, and who unintentionally disrupt feeding, nesting, and resting shorebirds. In cooperation with Georgia DNR, we are conducting surveys of boaters throughout the summer to learn more about why they visit these sites, what they know about shorebirds, and from where they access the sites. Then, we will launch a steward program to help educate recreational boaters about the needs of shorebirds and other wildlife, and how they can reduce negative impacts to these sensitive species. This is especially important because, for some of the boaters, these remote sand bars and inlets are beloved and traditional places that they come to every weekend, every year throughout the summer. On Memorial Day, we talked to one group who said they’d been coming to their site for 40 years!

While Ossabaw and other beautiful, undeveloped barrier islands provide incredible habitat for shorebirds on quiet beaches and marshes, the busier places in-between are also valuable. By working with the communities that value and depend on these places, we can form alliances and shift the culture to one where increased awareness means more opportunities for wildlife. This, in turn, protects fragile habitat and protects the intrinsic value of our coast and ensures that we will support shorebirds and other wildlife into the future. The next time you’re travelling to one of the islands, take a moment to appreciate all the interesting habitats on the way; these important places deserve our attention, too!


Update from Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative: We are pleased to share this film from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which documents the discovery of the largest known nighttime whimbrel roost just twenty miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. Biologists observed nearly 20,000 whimbrel (half the estimated eastern population of the declining shorebird) stopping at Deveaux Bank along their migration north.  I encourage you to watch the film and to reach out to me at to support our efforts.

Bill Dickinson

Bill Dickinson: Ossabaw Island Ambassador

By Burch Barger

When Bill Dickinson visited Ossabaw Island for the first time in 2012, two things struck him: the island’s unspoiled beauty, and the relatively low bid at the annual pig roast auction that won a naturalist-guided weekend. Bill promised himself that the following year, he would bid generously, and ensure that the Ossabaw Island Foundation got the sort of support the island merited.

It was a promise Bill kept, driving the price of that weekend auction package up 20 to 25 times that 2012 bid. And it’s a price he still considers to be a bargain, given the unparalleled opportunity to experience Ossabaw’s wildlife and pristine beaches, while supporting the work of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. He loves bringing new people along with him on these weekend excursions. Friends from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco never fail to be impressed by their experience, and they go home with stories to tell.

Bill, a retired clinical psychologist and CEO of Wet Willie’s frozen daiquiri chain, was born in upstate New York and spent his formative years on a seventh generation 200-acre family farm inside Adirondack State Park. He returns every year to visit the farm and the conserved land that surrounds it – a landscape he loves. He met his wife, Joe Ann Brandt, a Savannah native, while pursuing post-doctoral studies in Alabama and followed her back to her hometown in 1981. In the following years, they have raised two daughters, pursued successful careers, and volunteered their time in the Savannah community.

After that initial 2012 visit to Ossabaw, Bill – inspired by the legacy of Sandy West – has committed $100,000 to new programs and matching grant opportunities on the island. He has a collection of over 4000 photos of Ossabaw’s wildlife and landscapes and countless memories from navigating the island over the years with naturalist John “Crawfish” Crawford. As a reminder of his special experiences on Ossabaw, Bill has even planted indigo and yaupon holly at his home on Dutch Island.

Of all the visits he has made to Ossabaw, Bill’s favorite was made recently along with his two daughters, sons-in-law, and his two-year-old grandson. Seeing the island through his grandson’s eyes – watching him study his natural surroundings and hearing his questions – made Bill ever more thankful to know that Ossabaw, through the generosity of the Torrey-West family and the ongoing support of “Ossabaw’s army” of donors, will be stewarded for more generations to come.

Stewards Field Trips 2021: Experiencing the Benefits of Land and Wildlife Conservation

By Burch Barger

From St. Simons to Brunswick to Townsend to Darien, Stewards have gathered this year in beautiful, conserved places along the Georgia coast to learn and explore together.  Highlights of our four field trips, described below, included ideal weather, great conversations, and strengthened connections among participants.

In January, Stewards gathered at Cannon’s Point Preserve for a hike guided by Wendy Paulson and St. Simons Land Trust leaders Emily Ellison, Stephanie Knox, and Susan Shipman.  We discussed the natural and cultural histories of Cannon’s Point Preserve, as well as the success of past and current conservation initiatives on the property. We hiked along the eastern side of the 608-acre peninsula with views of salt marsh, old growth maritime forest, tidal creek and river shoreline. Our 5-mile loop included a midway picnic break near historic ruins and with a view of the Altamaha delta.

In March, Stewards gathered at Altama Wildlife Management Area for an update on conservation efforts along the Altamaha corridor.  Guided by Eamonn Leonard and Matthew Stoddard from Georgia DNR and Christi Lambert from The Nature Conservancy, we spent the morning learning about the longleaf pine ecosystem and restoration efforts that are being implemented at Altama.  After viewing a gopher tortoise in its burrow, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on site and an afternoon hike through the hardwood floodplain forest along the Altamaha River.

On Earth Day, April 22nd, Stewards gathered for a leisurely 6-mile bike ride at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.  Guides for this excursion were Tim Keyes from Georgia DNR, Christi Lambert from The Nature Conservancy, and Kate Tweedy from Little St. Simons Island. We stopped for short walks along the way to discuss conservation projects and to view nesting wood storks at one of the largest wading bird rookeries in the southeastern United States.

Stewards’ final trip of the spring season was an exploration of the Altamaha delta by water and by land. In the morning, we departed by boat from the Champney dock in south McIntosh County and traveled to Little Egg Island Bar. We observed flocks of shorebirds during the height of spring migration.  Abby Sterling and Brad Winn from Manomet led our conversations about shorebird conservation efforts in the Georgia bight and beyond. In the afternoon, we gathered at Butler Island to learn more about its history and recent challenges. Eunice Moore and Megan Desrosiers – representatives of the Coalition to Save Butler Island Plantation and House — shared their vision for future use of the property.

We are planning another slate of coastal excursions for the fall season, and we hope you will plan to join us.  More details will be released via email in the near future.

AMOY Chick Banding by Tim Keyes

Stewards Fund UTV Purchase to Support Shorebird Conservation Efforts

By Burch Barger

As you may recall, Stewards and the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation successfully collaborated in 2017 to “crowdfund” the $10,000 purchase of a Kawasaki mule UTV and related equipment for Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section to use on Cumberland Island. For four years, that vehicle transported field technicians on regular patrols to monitor nesting American Oystercatchers and Least Terns on the Cumberland beaches. It also enabled volunteers to increase their survey rate for Piping Plovers from 3-5 per year to 12 per year. Hundreds of Piping Plovers were documented, and many were banded — greatly expanding our understanding of the importance of the Georgia coast to this endangered species during migration and winter.

After four years of service and many miles of exposure to sand and salt air, the 2017 mule has been retired.  But, thanks to the generosity of Stewards Jon and Janine Weller, that’s not the end of the story! Jon connected this spring with Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist with Georgia DNR, on the Stewards field trip to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. On that trip, Jon learned that the Wildlife Conservation Section of the Georgia DNR relies heavily on private philanthropic support for their mission to conserve plant and animal species. Shortly after Jon returned home and spotted DNR’s request for a replacement Kawasaki mule on the Coastal Conservation Project List, Jon and Janine graciously offered to fund the purchase.

Thanks to the generosity of the Stewards network both in 2017 and 2021, Cumberland Island shorebird research efforts are equipped for continued success.

The Lasting Impact of William Bartram’s Writings and Illustrations

The Lasting Impact of William Bartram’s Writings and Illustrations

By Burch Barger

On your next visit to St. Simons Land Trust’s Guale Preserve, be sure to check out the new interpretive signage posted along Polly’s Trail.  Coastal naturalist Christa F. Hayes used observations from William Bartram’s 18th century explorations of the British colonies in North America as a unifying theme for the signs, which contain interesting facts about St. Simons and its diverse flora and fauna.

In her opening words posted on the trail, Christa notes “the writings and illustrations of William Bartram, along with the work of other early naturalists, reveal some of what we have lost, but also illuminate the rich biodiversity that remains in our care. Their legacy helps us identify goals for natural community restoration today.”

On a related note, readers may remember this 2016 Shoreline story about the Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary film Cultivating The Wild: William Bartram’s Travels. Co-produced by Eric Breitenbach and Dorinda Dallmeyer, the film presents a scholarly examination of the scientist’s life and work as well as a meditation on what has come to pass in the more than two hundred and twenty years since Bartram traversed the pre-Colonial South. The film is available here for online viewing.

Photo by Phillip Murdaco

Celebrating 50 Years of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

Fifty years ago, Georgians statewide fought hard to preserve our coastal landscape – a fight that centered just south of Tybee. There the coastal marshlands faced a novel, existential threat because of geology. During the 1960s, mining companies negotiated options to buy mineral rights on Little Tybee and Cabbage Islands. Their goal was to strip away the marsh sediments and extract extensive phosphate deposits that could be turned into fertilizer. The crisis intensified in early 1968 when the Kerr-McGee Corporation applied for a license from the Georgia Mineral Leasing Commission to mine phosphate from thousands of acres of the state-owned seabed offshore of Wassaw, Ossabaw, and St. Catherines Islands. Their plan called for dumping the mine waste atop neighboring barrier islands and marshland.

Kerr-McGee’s public relations campaign emphasized the putative economic benefits of the project. But the corporation failed to sway the Georgia public due to the efforts of a unique coalition of coastal scientists, students, conservation organizations, garden clubs, historical societies, hunting and fishing groups, and newspapers that rallied citizens statewide.

Remarkably, one figure in the fight was long deceased. Georgia poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) composed his famous work, “The Marshes of Glynn,” based on his observations of the marsh at Brunswick, Georgia from dawn to twilight. Combining descriptions of plants and animals of the marsh with the rhythms of the tidal cycle, the poem is deeply grounded in the spiritual impact Lanier felt before the majesty of God’s creation. Because generations of Georgia schoolchildren memorized the poem, people across the state were familiar with the coastal marshes even if they had never seen them for themselves. For them, mining Sidney Lanier’s marshes would be losing part of Georgia’s cultural heritage.

Others fought for the marshes based on their ecological value. The scientific studies of University of Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum and his colleagues at the Sapelo Island Marine Institute had established the importance of the coastal marsh functions, from primary productivity rivaling that of the rainforests to the marshland’s importance as a nursery grounds for fish and shellfish. To convey to the public that the marshlands were not just pestilential swamps, Odum borrowed a concept from the space race of the 1960s – the “life support system.” Just as astronauts could not survive in space without their life support systems, Dr. Odum argued that the marshes also provide a vast array of ecosystem goods and services vital to our life on Earth and to our coastal economies. To bring this message home, he and his graduate students barnstormed the state on an educational tour to explain the science behind why the marshes were more valuable in their natural state than destroyed for fertilizer production.

Another force supporting marsh protection were Georgia’s garden clubs. Mobilized by pioneer conservationist Jane Yarn, garden club members peppered the state legislature with thousands of letters opposing the destruction of Georgia’s coastal landscape. Newspapers across the state put mining the marshes on the front page and opposed it in their editorials. One editorial cartoon featured Sidney Lanier being scraped up by a bulldozer while penning the first lines of “The Marshes of Glynn.”

Representative Reid W. Harris guided the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 to passage in the Georgia House and Senate

Representative Reid W. Harris guided the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 to passage in the Georgia House and Senate

The full-throated public outcry from this massive coalition swayed the legislature and state agencies to not only deny Kerr-McGee’s license request but to move forward with comprehensive protection for Georgia’s salt marsh. The Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970, based solidly on ecological science, placed the state in the role of trustee whose foremost duty is to serve the public interest in managing proposed activities in the marsh. In 1979, the state adopted the Shore Protection Act to control human activities within the sand-sharing system. It, too, was based on sound ecological and geological principles.

And the Coastlands Wait: How the Grassroots Battle to Save Georgia’s Marshlands Was Fought – and WonAccording to historian Chris Manganiello, the passage of these two acts represented the “gold standard” for environmental engagement. The fight to save the marshes created an organized environmental movement in Georgia which has multiplied and thrived in the intervening decades. The lessons learned fifty years ago continue to inspire a coastal conservation ethic that protects our natural heritage and seeks to meet the coming challenges of climate change impacts at our coast.

For a first person account of how the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act was pushed through the Georgia state legislature in 1970, we recommend Representative Reid Harris’s book, And the Coastlands Wait: How the Grassroots Battle to Save Georgia’s Marshlands Was Fought – and Won. It was republished this year by The University of Georgia Press with the philanthropic support of coastal conservation advocates.

Tybee Island History and Tourism

Tybee Island History and Tourism

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

People may believe that children should visit pristine, magnificent places like America’s national parks to develop a love of nature. On the contrary, many coastal conservationists recall fond memories of learning to love the Georgia coast by visiting the three Georgia barrier islands readily accessible by car. There they were able to dig to their heart’s content in sand. A run into the surf took care of any mess — so different from the red clay of home. There were gentle waves, a chance to spot dolphins surfacing beyond the swells, and maybe a ship or two on the horizon to set you dreaming.

Along with Jekyll and St. Simons, Tybee Island became the foundation of childhood memories for many. In Tybee’s case, its history of human visitation can be traced back over 4,500 years to early indigenous peoples who occupied this island along with neighboring Little Tybee and Wassaw. Here at the mouth of the Savannah River, these earliest Georgians feasted on its rich fisheries, leaving behind great shell rings as evidence of their success.

Although a variety of European colonial powers visited and claimed Tybee’s shores, the arrival of English settlers in 1733 had the decisive impact, for these people planned to remain. One of their earliest construction projects at Tybee was a 90-foot-tall wooden lighthouse built in 1736 to guide ships through shoals at the river’s mouth. Although storms and fires repeatedly destroyed a succession of wooden structures, by 1773 a 100-foot brick tower managed to survive until Confederate troops burned it to thwart its use by Union forces during the siege of Savannah. After the Civil War, the tower was rebuilt with an additional 94 feet of brick atop the remaining 60-foot base laid in 1773. Despite earthquake and hurricane, that’s the structure that still stands today. It’s one of the few 18th century lighthouses still operating in America, an enduring symbol of Tybee, and a drawing card for tourists. The lighthouse also lends its name to the phrase “from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light” which celebrates the geographic diversity of Georgia.

Tybee’s location at the mouth of the Savannah River meant that it underwent many changes due to navigation and flood control activities throughout the Savannah River watershed. Flood-control dams built far upstream in the river’s headwaters trapped sand that otherwise would have made its way downstream to Tybee’s beaches. As far back as the 1890s, dredging plus construction of long jetties along the Savannah River’s navigational channel also began to starve the sand supply to Tybee’s beaches. One set of anthropogenic changes begat another. Since 1882, there have been more than forty Federal engineering projects to stabilize and renourish Tybee’s beaches to protect homes and businesses and to provide ample dry beach area for recreational needs – an effort that continues today.

1901 brochure, courtesy of the Special Collections Library, University of Georgia

1901 brochure, courtesy of the Special Collections Library, University of Georgia

Organized tourism dates back to 1870, when the “Tybee Improvement Company” began to formulate plans to develop the island as a beach resort. Part of the island’s draw was the opportunity to escape the bustle of Savannah; another was the emergence of the belief that salt air was healthy and rejuvenating. In 1873, small steam packet boats began to make daily runs to Tybee, and by 1876 there was a spacious hotel for overnight guests as well as a horse-drawn streetcar line from the boat pier down Tybee’s “main drag.” More restaurants and accommodations followed, along with beach-side pavilions for dancing or simply taking in the scenery.

People of that period were just as interested in speed of movement as we are today. To transport more visitors to the island more quickly than a multi-hour steamboat trip, construction started on the Savannah and Tybee Railway in 1886. Anyone who has ever ventured into the marsh understands that it would be no easy feat to lay a structurally sound roadbed across such soft ground cut by tidal creeks. Despite many challenges, the railbed was completed in late 1887. By 1890, the railroad had been purchased by the precursor of the Central of Georgia Railway, a major passenger and freight railroad serving Georgia and parts of Alabama and Tennessee.

The Central of Georgia took its new acquisition to heart. It printed color brochures featuring Tybee as a prime destination. Elaborate timetables and fare schedules showed Georgians all over the state exactly how long it would take to get there and ticket costs, including discounts for multi-day visits. It was an easy transfer from the main Savannah railroad station to the Tybee depot on Randolph Street, where passengers knew the Atlantic awaited after chugging across 18 miles of marsh. Going by rail instead of by boat cut that travel time in half. In 1910, the railroad carried over 160,000 people from Savannah to Tybee; a roundtrip ticket cost 40 cents (about 26 dollars today, adjusting for inflation).

postcards courtesy of the authorLike their predecessors, the railroad constructed hotels, restaurants, and attractions for all these tourists. Other entrepreneurs built their own cottages, boarding houses, and pavilions to accommodate the throngs enjoying the beach. And there were plenty of them, like my great-grandmother Bessie Andrews Haddock with her daughter Elizabeth who memorialized their visit in this photo postcard, dressed in their finest and posed in front of a painted ship on a painted ocean.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the personal automobile spelled the end of the railroad. In 1923, what we know today as U.S. 80 opened to parallel the railroad. No longer would visitors have to accommodate a train schedule or brush off cinders from the steam engine once they arrived. Supplanted by the automobile, rail service ended in 1933. Although it no longer will take you all the way to Tybee, approximately six miles of the old railbed now are the McQueen’s Island Trail, providing pedestrians and cyclists the opportunity to enjoy the salt air and sea breeze at a slower pace.

Tybee continues its growth, both as “Savannah’s beach” and as a magnet for visitors around the country. Recent figures estimate that Tybee draws more than a million visitors annually. Thanks to the work and generosity of conservation philanthropists, a new facility will open in Spring 2021 for Tybee Island visitors and residents alike: The Tybee Island Marine Science Center. The 5,000 square foot new center is located on Tybee’s North Beach and features views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Calibogue Sound at the Savannah River Entrance. It has the capacity to reach over 100,000 people annually, connecting them to the stewardship of Georgia’s coast through hands-on education and conservation programs. Fundraising efforts to complete the exhibits are still underway. Here are details on how to support the project.

Neighboring islands offer a different kind of coastal experience. Little Tybee Island is a favorite place to explore by kayak and for overnight camping. Comprised of 6505 acres of undeveloped salt marshes and tidal creeks and 3.5 miles of beach, Little Tybee is accessible only by boat. It is owned and managed by the state of Georgia, with a conservation easement retained by The Nature Conservancy. Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge preserves a snapshot of Georgia’s original coast, reminiscent of what those first “tourists” would have seen thousands of years ago. Its timber was never cut nor was the island put to the plow. As part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges system, Wassaw also is accessible only by boat. It is open from sunrise to sunset for low-impact activities such as hiking, picknicking, and birdwatching.

In addition to all those humans, Tybee, Little Tybee, and Wassaw host a wide variety of bird life, visitors and residents alike. In the fall of 2018, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated much of the Georgia coast as a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance, including portions of Tybee as well as the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge. The designation recognizes the Georgia coast’s importance to migratory birds, who winter here or refuel and rest on round-trip journeys that may span from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

Like all of Georgia’s islands connected to the mainland by causeways, Tybee faces challenges from balancing tourism with its year-round residents’ quality of life, managing growth to avoid the destruction of its environmental amenities which bring people there in the first place, and adapting to the inexorable rise of sea level. The decisions made today will ensure that Tybee’s sandy beaches continue to inspire generations yet to come.

Provided by The Caretta Research Project

Wassaw Island, The Caretta Research Project, and a 150+ Year Family Legacy of Philanthropy

By Christa Hayes

George Parsons, born in 1826 and raised in Maine, worked with his brother to build successful business ventures in southern cities, including Savannah.  Parsons was known for his strong family ties, a concern for community needs, and generosity.  Parsons established a culture of giving in his family that would be handed down through the generations and it’s left an indelible mark on Wassaw Island and continues to impact sea turtle conservation work taking place there today.

Parsons purchased Wassaw Island in 1866 as a gift for his bride, Sarah Eddy Parsons.  He went on to build a housing compound for his family and friends at the center of the island.  As the Parsons, their children, and their children’s children spent time on Wassaw Island, they developed a deep love for it and an appreciation for the island’s special character.  In 1930, with an eye toward the future, family members and others formed the Wassaw Island Trust to preserve Wassaw in its natural state.

In the 1960’s, trustees became concerned that the state of Georgia might condemn the island and open it for development or public use (Georgia had purchased Jekyll Island under a condemnation order in 1947). In response, they made arrangements to convey Wassaw to the United States for permanent preservation as a National Wildlife Refuge.  To facilitate the transaction, the Nature Conservancy of Georgia bought Wassaw Island from the Trust for $1 million in 1969 and, in turn, sold it to the federal government for the same amount. The transaction carried three stipulations.  First, the island would remain in its natural state.  Second, no bridge could be built connecting the island to the mainland.  And, finally, the Wassaw Island Trust would retain 180 acres for on-going use, including the housing compound. Not surprisingly, Parsons family trustees would soon use their influence to make the island accessible and the property available for philanthropic and conservation purposes.

More than 150 years after George Parsons first cultivated within his family both a culture of giving and a love of the Georgia coast, his descendants continue that tradition by supporting sea turtle conservation with their time, personal commitment, and financial support.

In the early 1970s, volunteer herpetologists and the Savannah Science Museum launched a conservation effort focused on loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) out of a concern for the declining population.  A Parsons family member provided crucial support to the initiative, including transporting researchers and volunteers to Wassaw and providing housing.  This led to the 1972 founding of the Caretta Research Project. It was one of the first sea turtle conservation initiatives in the country and it continues today.  Caretta’s on-going mission includes monitoring and protecting loggerhead sea turtle nests on Wassaw and educating the public about sea turtle conservation. Their efforts are successful with the continued support of private philanthropists. Their current needs include funding to purchase basic research supplies, including tags and applicators, as well as a new Kawasaki Mule. More details are available on the Coastal Conservation Project List.

Provided by the City of Darien

Collaborative Efforts Underway to Preserve Butler Island

By Burch Barger

Hosted by The Coalition to Save Butler Island and organized by One Hundred Miles, three consecutive gatherings (both in person and online) were held recently to facilitate public conversation about the future of Butler Island. Participants in these sessions, titled “Creating a Future for Our Past,” included community members, descendants of enslaved people, conservationists, historians, tourism professionals, theologians, private foundations, academics, elected officials, state agency representatives, and more.

Butler Island, located in McIntosh County and part of the 30,000-acre Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, is an important and historic landmark from our coast’s history. It is the site where Pierce Butler enslaved more than 500 people and where famed actress and abolitionist Fannie Kemble documented the atrocities that she witnessed there in her influential work, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839.  Kemble’s journals were seminal in turning the tide of Great Britain’s public opinion against slavery.  Plagued by gambling debts, Butler became notorious for the largest single auction of enslaved people in U.S. history known as the “Weeping Time,” where hundreds of Butler Island families were separated and taken to Savannah and held captive in horse stalls before being sold and shipped off to enslavers throughout the antebellum South.

Visited and widely used by thousands of people since it became a wildlife management area, Butler Island has struggled greatly to meet maintenance demands. Upkeep of the complex system of dikes that create vital habitat for waterfowl is costly.  Structures on the island, particularly the postbellum Huston House, have fallen into disrepair but at present remain viable for restoration. Built in 1927 by the former owner of the New York Yankees who personally recruited Babe Ruth, the Huston House was a duck hunting lodge that hosted not only Ruth himself but also other baseball luminaries like Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb.

The future of Butler Island currently hangs in the balance. Georgia House Bill 906, which was designed to allow the transfer of Georgia heritage preserves to private developers, met with strong public resistance and was defeated earlier this year. In the wake of this legislative battle, The Coalition to Save Butler Island seeks to devise solutions for not only financing the upkeep of Butler Island but also honoring those enslaved on the property and protecting the site’s historic and natural assets for generations to come.

Recommendations and comments from the public sessions have been gathered and shared with the Georgia DNR, owner of Butler Island. Based on resounding feedback from session participants, the Coalition is creating a “Friends of Butler Island” organization and applying for 501c3 status, as well as pursuing funding for projects that will help with restoration and other initiatives on the property. It will take continued collaboration and creative fundraising efforts to generate the revenue necessary to preserve Butler Island. To support this important movement which seeks to promote both environmental conservation and cultural preservation, please contact Megan Desrosiers, CEO of One Hundred Miles.