The Legacy of Dungeness
by: Davis Yancy Clegg
This week we are taking a trip back over to our favorite island off the island! While there are far more recent structures on Cumberland Island like the Greyfield Inn, Architecture on Cumberland has been around dating all the way back to 1736. Dungeness, a Queen Anne Shingle-style architectural designed mansion, currently sits in ruins on the Cumberland National Seashore.
If you have pockets like the Kennedy’s, you can have you very own wedding on the grounds. Going back to some 40 years before the founders drafted and signed our Declaration of Independence, the historic district of Dungeness was once the home to many of the families that were very significant in America’s infancy. James Oglethorpe first built on Cumberland Island in 1736. Originally built with the intentions of being used as a hunting lodge, he named Dungeness. Following its tenure as a hunting lodge, the next step in Dungeness legacy was to be that of Nathanael Greene. Greene had acquired 11,000 acres of island land as payment for a debt gone unpaid. Once Nathanael passed, his widow then erected a four-story mansion in 1803, over a Timucuan shell mound left behind from a tribe long extinct. When the war of 1812 ensued, the island become over-run and occupied entirely by the British forces. They took advantage of the size of the house and used it as their military operations headquarters.
The legacy of the Dungeness Historic District would continue on after the war in the hands of Thomas M. Carnegie, sibling of Andrew Carnegie, who started to build his own vision on the site. Some several years later in 1886, there sat a 59-room Queen Anne style mansion. Unfortunately, in a somewhat anti-climactic twist, Carnegie would meet his end before seeing the mansion finished. Lucy, Carnegie’s wife, decided to stay on the property. Not only did she stay, but she built other estates for her children to take up residence. They included Greyfield, Plum Orchard, and Stafford Plantation. By the time Mrs. Carnegie had completed building the estates, the family owned 90% of the entirety of Cumberland Island. In 1925, the Carnegies decided to vacate Dungeness. In 1959, the unthinkable happened. The Dungeness mansion was completely ravaged by fire and left to ruins. It has long been the conclusion that the fire was an act of arson. Nowadays, the National Park Service watches over the ruins as they are part of Cumberland Island National Seashore. In the not too distant future, it is expected that the National Park service will attain responsibility for all of Cumberland’s historically significant sites.
With all of the history that embodies the ruins today, the ruins of Dungeness make for quite the historic visual as part of some of our river tours. The Main house makes up for the larger portion of the historic district. It is here where servant’s quarters, all of the utility buildings, cisterns, and many other structures still stand. To give you an idea of the kind of money and technological effort that was invested into Dungeness, it should be noted that at one time the entire district had power while the inland areas were still burning wax thru the day and night. Quite a feat when you think of the engineering and means available at the time. If nothing else, let these architectural achievements serve as a reminder that – just like the Egyptian’s pyramids – mankind has always possessed the ability to perform ahead of their time with the right inspiration guiding them. However, it is only whence time has passed and history is told that we learn of the probability of such accomplishments and the odds against them. It is my hope’s end that time might look back on us with such a reverence and gaze upon our accomplishments with the same astonishment.