Sapelo Island | Darien, Georgia
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Sapelo Island is a state-protected island located in McIntosh County, Georgia. The island is only reachable by boat, with the primary ferry coming from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in McIntosh County, Georgia, a 17-mile, 20-minute trip.
Approximately 97 percent of the island is owned by the State of Georgia and is managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; the remaining is under private ownership. The western border of Sapelo is the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is part of NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve system. The University of Georgia Marine Institute, which is focused on research and education, is located on 1,500 acres on the south end of the island. The Reynold’s Mansion, a Georgia State Park, also lies on the south end of the island. Visitors to the island must be a part of an organized tour or guests of residents on the island.
The community of Hog Hammock includes a general store, bar, and other small businesses. There are two active churches in the town. Most inhabitants of the town are African Americans, part of the Gullah or Geechee community, and have been living on the island for generations. The residents must bring over all supplies from the mainland or purchase them in the small store on the island. The children of Hog Hammock take the ferry to the mainland and take a bus to school, as its own school closed in 1978.
Visiting the Island
There are many ways to access Sapelo Island. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers tours several days a week. These can be booked through the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. Additionally, many island residents offer private tours which can often be customized to fit the interests of individual tourists. Information about these private tours can also be obtained from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. A state campground is also available to groups of 15-25 people on Cabretta Island (adjacent to Sapelo Island). Many residents in Hog Hammock also offer camping, bed and breakfast accommodations, and bike rentals. There are a couple of restaurants on the island, but one should arrange meals ahead of time as they operate on an “at will” schedule. Lastly, the DNR offers an upscale group accommodation and conference center, the R. J. Reynolds Mansion, which is available to groups of 16-29 adults. Information about all of these camping, lodging and dining options can be obtained from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. Visitors can get to the island by boat or by taking the Sapelo Island Ferry, which leaves from a dock near the visitors center
Sapelo Island is speculated to be the site of San Miguel de Gualdape, the short-lived first European settlement in the present-day United States.
During the 17th century, Sapelo Island was part of the Guale missionary province of Spanish Florida. After 1680, several missions were merged and relocated to the island under the mission Santa Catalina de Guale.
In the early 1800s, Thomas Spalding, a future Georgia Senator and U.S. Representative, bought the island and developed it into a plantation, selling live oak for shipbuilding, introduced irrigation ditches, and cultivated Sea Island Cotton, corn, and sugar cane. Spalding brought 400 slaves to the island from West Africa and the West Indies to work the plantation and build what would become the Spalding Mansion.
In 1820, a Winslow Lewis brick lighthouse was built on the island. Although it remained dark for over 90 years, it was rebuilt and relit in 1998.
Spalding opposed the abolishment of slavery and died in 1851 on his way back from a convention to assert Georgia’s position on the matter. When freed, the former slaves established several settlements on the island, the last remaining is Hog Hammock with approximately 70 remaining land owners. During the Civil War, the Spalding home was vandalized heavily and lay in ruins.
By the early 20th century the International Road Races were attracting notables from the motor world to Savannah. One attendee was Howard E. Coffin, founder of the Hudson Motor Company in Detroit. Coffin purchased all of the island, save for the land owned by the former slaves, for $150,000 in 1912. Like Spalding, the Coffins embarked on numerous projects. Miles of shell-covered roads were laid, creeks were bridged, old fields were cultivated, and large tracts were set aside for cattle grazing. The Coffins also renovated and enlarged the Spalding house, creating an island paradise unsurpassed on the coast. Former presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as well as aviator Charles Lindbergh were guests in the home. R. J. Reynolds, Jr., of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, bought Sapelo during the Great Depression in 1933 and continued the tradition of agricultural experimentation of the previous owners. The Reynolds used the island as a part-time residence for three decades, consolidating the islands’ African-American residents into Hog Hammock and establishing the basis for the university research facilities. In 1965, Reynold’s widow sold their stake to the state of Georgia and the mansion takes its name from its final private owner.
Tagged with: Barrier Islands in Georgia
Georgia Barrier Islands Photos
Photographs of 16 major barrier islands along the Georgia Coast with brief descriptions. Photos are arranged in geographical order north to south. For more detailed information on each island see Barrier Islands In Georgia and the Georgia Barrier Islands Map.