We are highlighting St. Simons Island, Georgia, this month in the Good Towns series. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
If the antique oaks spread across St. Simons Island could speak, they’d tell the tale of a thousand souls – stories of territorial battles and religious dreamers and poets who found inspiration on this, the largest of the four barrier islands along the Georgia coast.
Instead, its stories are told by H. “Cap” Neal Fendig, owner of Lighthouse Trolleys.
“I have it indoctrinated in me,” he says. “My family has been here so long and have been a major part of this community.” Cap’s voice drones like a distant foghorn against the lapping water and clanking metal from boats docked at Morning Star Marina. The wind came in strong this day, the kind of gales that keep sailors from heading out to sea. It won’t stop Cap from doing his job. He’s booked a trolley tour for later in the day.
Organized bike, kayak and walking tours abound in St. Simons, but none offer visitors what Cap can – a half century of insider knowledge of the people, the sea, and the island his family has called home since the 1800s.
Cap and his team run fishing charters, dolphin tours, shrimping trawls and sunset cruises by sea, and history and ghost tours by land via motor coach or open-air trolley. He shows tourists the site of the battles that sealed the fate of Georgia as a British colony, where the Wesley brothers preached under the live oaks, and the love triangle that still haunts the iconic lighthouse by the sea.
And he tells visitors of the rich ecological legacy of the Golden Isles of Georgia. “Not a lot of people know about the Georgia coast, how much natural history is here. The size and scope of the ecosystem. Or, our unusual location and how it affects the natural state of the tides,” he says.
The Georgia coast is a natural wonderland. Here, the continental shelf extends for nearly 400 miles offshore – more than twice the average along the East Coast. This wide shelf causes waves to break far off shore. Closer inland, the water is little more than a ripple against the flat, fine-sand beaches, and is ideal for kayaking, paddle boarding or extreme kite boarding. But while the waves are small, the tides are not, rising and falling more than any other place south of the Gulf of Maine. This tremendous lateral sweep of the water is ideal for shell hunting and can be best seen on the vast, open sand beaches at the northern tip of East Beach, a place called Gould’s Inlet.
The rising and receding tides of the sea also give life to the saltwater marshes at St. Simons. These wetlands of herbaceous plant species encompass about 378,000 acres in a 4-to- 6-mile band behind the barrier islands. This fragile yet enormously productive ecosystem is considered one of the most extensive and productive marshlands in the world. Its grasses are fed by the rising tide. In turn, the outgoing water breaks down the grasses and feeds the resources to the sea, providing food for small fish, plankton, oysters, shrimp, clams and crab, which then become food for other wildlife in the sea, on land, and in the air.
Inland, live oaks are seemingly as populous as people, and vigorously protected by city ordinances. Streets and walkways bend around their sprawling Spanish moss-draped branches that dip toward the ground, and buildings are forbidden to rise above the canopy. These trees can live two to three centuries and spread as wide as 50 feet or more, and are a favorite among nature photographers.
Much of the northern half of St. Simons remains marsh or woodland, 600 acres of which is an area of wild native species and mature maritime forest linked to the lower Altamaha River known as Cannon’s Point Preserve. The property is one of the most biologically rich systems with numerous shell rings and middens dating back thousands of years. The land was purchased by the St. Simons Land Trust in 2012, and is open for public exploration on specified days of the week.
About a 15-minute boat ride east of Canon Point Preserve is Little St. Simons, a private, 11,000-acre barrier island and eco resort. It offers overnight guests access to 7 miles of pristine beaches and undeveloped wilderness for exploration and enjoyment. Those who do not wish to stay in the island’s lodge or cottages can sign up for a day-long naturalist-led tour of the wildlife.
When Charles Wesley first set foot upon St. Simons Island in March 1736 to serve as Secretary of Indian Affairs and Chaplain for General James Oglethorpe at the new fortification called Frederica, he wrote in his diary, “No sooner did I enter upon my ministry than God gave me, like Saul, a new heart.”
His enthusiasm didn’t last long. Soured by a strained relationship with Gen. Oglethorpe and accommodations that left him insect-bitten and sweltering in the Southern heat, he called upon his brother, John Wesley, who was serving as priest for the Anglican parish in the newly settled Savannah. John visited St. Simons five times during their two-year stay in Georgia, preaching under the massive oaks and establishing a congregation that is now known as Christ Church. Later, the Wesley brothers would return to England and, along with fellow cleric George Whitefield, led the Methodist movement. But, St. Simons has not forgotten them. In 1988, the Southern Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church and Christ Episcopal created Wesley Memorial Gardens, a 2-acre swatch of land covered with native trees and more than 4,000 azaleas surrounding an 18-foot Celtic Cross. The gardens are open to the public and can be found directly across from Christ Church.
Just up the road, on the interior coast of the island at the Frederica River bend, sits Fort Frederica, where Charles Wesley served under Oglethorpe. Established in 1736, the town was a bulwark against the Spanish in Florida who claimed the coastal islands that were slowly being settled by the English. In the 1742 battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek, Oglethorpe’s forces thwarted the attempts of the Spanish to invade St. Simons Island. Bloody Marsh Battlefield, located on Demere Road, is now a unit of the Fort Frederica National Monument. The site of the Battle of Gully Hole Creek is identified by a historical marker just south of the fort.
With the Spanish no longer a threat, the garrison was mostly abandoned by 1755. Remnants of the original fort and barracks remain, and the foundations of many of the homes have been further exposed through archaeological investigations. Visitors can tour Fort Frederica National Monument for free daily, excluding some holidays.
Traveling south along the Frederica River from Fort Frederica toward the F. J. Torras Causeway that links the island to the mainland in Brunswick, is Gascoigne Bluff, the first possible landing area for a ship entering the harbor. This one-mile tract of land is named for Captain James Gascoigne, commander of the sloop-of-war Hawk that, in 1735, brought the Wesleys, Gen. Oglethorpe, and other early British colonists to Georgia to establish Fort Frederica. It would later serve as a headquarters for military invasion, a Sea Island Cotton plantation, a lumber mill and a shipping point for timber.
This historic site now features 24 acres of greenspace that include the remains of two slave cabins constructed with tabby, a concrete made from burned oyster shells, as well as a magnificent live oak grove. In 1794, trees here were milled and used to build the U.S.S. Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides,” and in 1874, for the Brooklyn Bridge.
Look closely and you might see one of the old oaks looking back at you. The Tree Spirit here is one of dozens of faces carved between two huge branches or on the stub of a long-vanished branch. These weathered faces were originally carved in the 1980s by artist Keith Jennings. Some are on private property, but many on public grounds can be found using the Tree Spirit Scavenger Hunt Map.
In 1878, Georgia native and acclaimed poet Sidney Lanier, seeking relief from tuberculosis, came to St. Simons. The South was suffering in the difficult post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, but the beauty of the saltwater marshes near Gascoigne Bluff inspired him to pen what is now considered one of his greatest works, the Marshes of Glynn (referring to Georgia’s Glenn County), part of a set of lyrical poems entitled Hymn of the Marshes. Visitors can capture the views memorialized by Lanier from the gazebo overlooking the Frederica River on the grounds of Epworth By The Sea, a ministry established in 1950 by the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is named in honor of Epworth, England, the boyhood home of John and Charles Wesley.
Also on the property is the oldest standing church building on the island. The church was constructed in 1880 by lumber magnate Norman W. Dodge and named St. James Union Chapel. The church was purchased in 1949 by the Methodists and renamed Lovely Lane Chapel. The chapel is open to the public for Sunday worship services and can be reserved for wedding ceremonies.
Lanier wasn’t the only writer to find inspiration on St. Simons Island. Novelist Eugenia Price’s visit here changed her life forever.
“It was very like falling in love,” she wrote in St. Simons Memoir, a reflection on her time on the island. “I had loved many other spots I’d seen, but the spell of St. Simons Island did not let me go.”
It never did.
During the West Virginia native’s first visit to the island in the fall of 1961, Eugenia and her longtime companion, Joyce Blackburn, were drawn to walk the grounds of Christ Church (also called Christ Church Frederica) set among the cedar trees and aging tombstones of early settlers and famous Georgians.
The congregation of Christ Church, established by John and Charles Wesley centuries ago, is recognized by a plaque near the cemetery grounds. But the first Christ Church building wasn’t erected until 1820. It was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War.
The current clapboard building was constructed in 1884 in the cruciform design by the son of Norman Dodge (builder of Lovely Lane Chapel), Anson Phelps Dodge Jr. Anson built the church as a labor of love in memory of his wife Ellen, who died unexpectedly while overseas on their honeymoon. He later became the church’s rector. Per his wife’s wishes not to be buried in the ground until he could join her, Ellen’s remains were placed beneath the altar until Anson’s death.
The reverend remarried in 1890 to Anna Gould. The couple had one child, who died tragically as a toddler. Upon Anson’s death in 1898 at the age of 38, he was buried next to his son in the graveyard beside the church. The body of his first wife, Ellen, was removed from beneath the altar and buried alongside him. Anna Gould joined them upon her death years later.
Standing at the edge of the Dodge family plot next to Christ Church, Eugenia felt called to write the history of St. Simons Island in three books – The Beloved Invader, New Moon Rising, and The Lighthouse. The St. Simons Trilogy, as the trio books became known, was a pivotal time in Eugenia’s life, marking her transition from an inspirational writer to a best-selling novelist.
True to her word, the spell of St. Simons Island never let go of Eugenia. Her body was buried here at Christ Church after her death in 1996, just yards from the Dodge family plot. Her gravesite is one of the most visited on the island.
The cemetery is one of the oldest in Georgia, with gravestones dating back to 1803. The church remains an active Episcopal church with regular worship services. Visitors are welcome to view the detailed woodwork within the sanctuary and hear the history of the church every Tuesday through Sunday afternoon. The grounds are can be toured most days from sunrise to sunset.
Village by the Sea
St. Simons has two distinct personalities. The northern half, which remains mostly marsh and woodland, tells the story of the island’s past. But, the southern half resembles more of a beach community. This is where the vast majority of commercial and residential development is located, including Pier Village.
This unofficial downtown district is a popular shopping and dining destination with bakeries and sweet shops, restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops lining Mallery Street. Among them is J.S. Strother Hardware, Glynn County’s longest-running business having served contractors and homeowners since 1930. The shop also sells a variety of fishing tackle and large pots for cooking up ocean catches.
At the south end of Mallery Street, the fishing supplies can be put to use at St. Simons Island Pier overlooking St. Simons Sound. Popular catches include snapper, grouper and wild Georgia shrimp. It is not uncommon for fishermen to hook a shark. They are abundant here, but shark attacks are rare because the marshes provide so much natural food for them to feast on, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
The Georgia coast is also has one of the largest documented bottlenose dolphin populations, and is the only known calving area for the North Atlantic right whales. These endangered mammals can be spotted from St. Simons pier during their wintertime migration from the northeast United States. A statute of a right whale breaching the water’s surface is located nearby in the oak-shaded picnic area at Neptune Park Fun Zone, an oceanfront amusement with a large swimming pool, playground, and miniature golf course.
Just beyond the park stands the white tower of St. Simons Lighthouse and the attached keeper’s quarters-turned museum. The lighthouse was built in the 1870s to replace an earlier one that was destroyed during the Civil War to prevent encroaching Union forces from using it. For a small fee, visitors can tour the museum and climb the 129 steps that circle up the 104-foot-tall tower to the exterior catwalk at the top. Here, visitors are rewarded with a panoramic view of the Georgia coast.
What may not be found among the lighthouse novelties is the story of Frederick Osborne, a former lighthouse keeper who made an “inappropriate” comment to the wife of his assistant, John Stephens. Regardless, a confrontation ensued, which ended with Stephens shooting Osborne dead. Stephens was arrested and tried for his boss’s murder, but was ultimately acquitted when the jury agreed that Osborne’s comments to Stephens’ wife warranted the keeper’s fatal outcome.
This verdict apparently did not sit well with Osborne in the afterlife because according to local lore, his ghost haunts the lighthouse grounds. The gracious docent standing in the cottage’s foyer says she’s never seen any apparitions. “But I have heard a few things,” she says. Her job is to greet visitors who enter the two-story museum. But sometimes, when there’s no one around, “I hear things. Like doors closing or the floor creaking. I have to wonder, is it him?”
It is unlikely visitors will see Osborne’s ghost on the grounds. But if the wind is blowing just right, she says, “it howls hauntingly through the lighthouse tower.”
The four barrier islands on the coast of Georgia include St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll, and Sea Island. They were named the Golden Isles by the earliest explorers seeking to gain the support of wealthy Londoners in order to establish a coastal colony in the area. The name comes from the brilliant reflection that stretches across the ocean when the sun rises over it, as well as the stunning golden hue that is released as the sun sets westward beyond the mainland.
If the tide is low, the entire length of East Beach with its hard-packed sand is passable by foot or bike beginning at Pier Village and heading northeast to the more secluded Massengale Park, and onward to the most popular beach location, the U.S. Coast Guard Station, home of the Maritime Museum. The beach continues onward to Gould’s Inlet at the northernmost tip.
Much of the coastline is undisturbed, and the development that does rise up is moderate and, due to city ordinances, cannot be built taller than the tree canopy. As a result, there are no high-rise condominiums lining the beaches. Even the historic Mediterranean-style King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, which sits along East Beach, is no more than four stories tall at its highest point.
The King and Price opened in 1935 as a seaside dance club and later became a hotel. During World War II, the resort briefly served as a naval coast-watching and training facility. Through the years, it has undergone extensive renovations and additions, with its latest upgrades harkening back to the resort’s World War II naval history.
The resort’s award winning golf course is a challenging course that winds through ancient forests, salt marshes, dramatic island holes, and lakes. It’s one of several golf courses – both public and private – on St. Simons. Others include Frederica Golf Club, Sea Island Golf Club, and Retreat Golf Course. Golfing is popular here because St. Simons’ topography lends itself to beautiful courses. Some are impeccably manicured while others, like the King and Prince, most resemble a nature reserve.
It’s only natural that several professional golfers choose to live here, including 1997 PGA Championship winner Davis Love III, 2002 PGA Tour Rookie of the year Jonathan Byrd, 2009 U.S. Open winner Lucas Glover, and 2007 Masters Tournament champ Zach Johnson.
Johnson came to the island to practice and thought, “Man, I could live here.” He wasted no time finding a home.
“From a golf standpoint, [St. Simons] is second to none. It’s one of the top destinations, as far as I know,” he told The Augusta Chronicle. “But the beauty of the place, is everything. It’s the people. it’s the mom-and-pop shops. It’s the food. … The community has embraced us, too. We’re just part of the community.”