Georgia's National Treasure
Sapelo is a state-managed barrier island, the fourth largest in the chain of coastal Georgia islands between the Savannah and St. Marys rivers. Accessible only by passenger ferry from Meridian Dock eight miles northeast of Darien, Sapelo provides a number of public access recreational, educational and lodging opportunities.
The island is managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (Wildlife Resources Division), which operates the ferry service and serves as the state liaison for several other island entities. These include the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR), administered and operated in a state-federal partnership between Georgia DNR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; also, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, and the civilian Hog Hammock community, permanent home to about 70 full-time residents, many of whom are descended from the antebellum slaves of Sapelo’s various plantations.
The SINERR comprises 6,100 acres of pristine tidal salt marsh and upland maritime forest. It is the primary platform for public education and outreach on the island, as well as coordination of various scientific research and water quality monitoring initiatives. The SINERR also operates the mainland Visitors Center at the Meridian ferry dock from which visitors may make tour reservation for public day trips to the island on Wednesdays and Saturdays the year around in addition to Fridays during the summer.
DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division manages the 7,000-acre R.J. Reynolds WMA an area set aside for seasonal recreational hunting for the public, in addition to wildlife research and forest management. The DNR and SINERR headquarters are located at the Long Tabby, housed in a restored tabby sugar mill originally built in 1809.
DNR, through its Parks & Historic Sites Division, also operates the R.J. Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo. Built by Thomas Spalding in 1810 and restored successively by automotive pioneer Howard Coffin in 1925 and tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds in the 1940s, the Mansion provides overnight accommodations for groups of up to 28 with meals and other amenities prepared by island residents. The mansion also operates a public beach campground at Cabretta, for groups of up to 25 persons.
The University of Georgia Marine Institute, housed in the former farm and dairy complex built by Reynolds in the 1930s, has conducted estuarine research since 1953 with the focus on the chemical and biological processes associated with the surrounding tidal salt marsh ecosystem. Some of the leading ecologists in the world have conducted field studies at the Marine Institute, including Dr. Eugene Odum, “father of modern ecology.”
Sapelo’s human occupation dates back at least 4,500 years based on archaeological studies conducted at the Shell Ring and various shell middens on the island. From the late 16th century to 1680 the Franciscan Mission of San Jose was part of the chain of Spanish missions along the southeastern coast. Thomas Spalding owned most of Sapelo from 1802 until his death in 1851 and it was during this period that the island became one of the largest and most efficiently managed Sea Island cotton and sugar cane plantations in the South. Spalding was an agricultural innovator whose techniques were far ahead of his time. He owned 400 slaves and, after the Civil War, his descendants sold tracts of land on Sapelo to a number of the freed slaves. Later, several African American settlements thrived on Sapelo, at Raccoon Bluff, Shell Hammock, Belle Marsh, Lumber Landing and Hog Hammock.
Howard E. Coffin, chief engineer of the Hudson Motorcar Company, acquired all of Sapelo, excepting the African American communities, in 1912 and, much in the manner of Spalding, engaged in a variety of pursuits on the island. Coffin provided employment to the black communities through farming activities, road building, land clearing, oyster and shrimp processing and boat building. Coffin also restored Spalding’s Long Tabby sugar mill for use as a guest quarters, and completely rebuilt the original Spalding main house into one of the most palatial estates on the Georgia coast. A parade of famous visitors came to Sapelo in the 1920s and early 1930s, including two U.S. presidents, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the golfer Bobby Jones. In 1934, during the Depression, Coffin sold Sapelo to Richard J. Reynolds of North Carolina. Reynolds used the island as a private retreat until his death in 1964. During his ownership the African American communities were consolidated into the one at Hog Hammock.
In 1969, Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Schmidt Reynolds, sold the upper two thirds of Sapelo to the State of Georgia then in 1976 she sold the remaining acreage of the south end to the State, that portion becoming the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Perhaps the most visible manmade feature of Sapelo is an 80-foot tall lighthouse, built by the federal government in 1820. It was deactivated after the hurricane of 1898 and remained unlit for a century, until a restoration of the tower by DNR. Repainted in its original alternating red and white bands, the Sapelo light is once again a working aid to navigation overlooking the waters of Doboy Sound, once the anchorage for hundreds of sailing ships arriving from all over the world to load pine timber processed at the numerous sawmills in the Darien area.
Hog Hammock is a center of African American culture and history, one of the most unique communities of its kind on the south Atlantic coast. Home of the Geechee culture, a derivative of the South Carolina Gullah, Hog Hammock comprises 434 acres of privately-owned, or community-owned land.
Day tours for the general public of Hog Hammock and other areas of Sapelo are conducted the year around. Reservations may be made through the Sapelo Island Visitors Center (912-437-3224), located at the mainland ferry dock. Tours for school groups, elder hostels and other entities are also available several days a week by contacting the SINERR education office (912-485-2300). Information may be found at the SINERR website www.sapelonerr.org
Private tours and overnight lodging are also available from Hog Hammock residents, information on which is available at the Visitors Center, as well as details relating to lodging accommodations at the Reynolds Mansion or the Cabretta Campground.