by Karen Rubin
Most who come to Jekyll Island will luxuriate in its rustic charm, its peaceful splendor. They come to commune with nature, enjoy the beach, bike along its miles of trails. A popular retreat for the Gilded Age moguls, it is no wonder it is so popular for honeymoons, destination weddings, as a romantic retreat and as a family getaway.
For me, though, the delight comes in being immersed in the history of this place – like so many of the Historic Hotels of America members, the Jekyll Island Club is unique, has a special connection to the place, its people, indeed the history of the state and nation.
View slideshow: Exploring Jekyll Island Georgia
Being here at the hotel and then exploring the small island, is like being on a scavenger hunt – the clues are the photos that decorate the walls, the names of rooms and buildings, the historic markers you come upon on the trails, the ruins and the structures so lovingly and faithfully restored. Just across from the Jekyll Island Club, which is within a 240-acre historic district of Victorian cottages and buildings, you find yourself in a splendid museum with fascinating artifacts, in the ruins of a colonial home, a memorial to one of the last slave ships to bring its human cargo to America’s shores. Its beach was used for a battle scene in the Civil-War movie, “Glory,” about an all-Black regiment that so bravely went to its death fighting for freedom; the legacy is a boardwalk constructed for the film.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel was originally built in 1886 as a hunting retreat for America’s wealthy elite – including JP Morgan, William Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer, the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Astors.
The very proximity of these movers and shakers meant that important history was made here: One photo stands out showing the first transcontinental telephone call placed by AT&T president Theodore Vail on January 25, 1915, with JP Morgan and William Rockefeller standing by.
Photos that decorate the walls show that It is remarkably intact from the way it was, and yet, though you would never know it from looking at the pristine, idyllic setting today, it has gone through its own tumult. It was used as a private club – quite literally an “Ol Boy’s Club” and probably, the world’s first time-share, since the members were fractional owners – up until World War II, when U-boats were spotted and the government evacuated the island.
After the war, their island retreat fell out of favor of the members who moved on to newer, posher, trendier resort destinations like Palm Beach, Florida.
The state of Georgia condemned the island, paid $675,000 to take it over as a state park (a controversy that figured into the defeat of Governor Thompson though his opponent after winning completed the transaction), and attempted to continue to operate the hotel up until 1970, when the hotel was closed. “Pirates” who came by boat actually looted the hotel, and it fell into disrepair.
Up until that time, the island could only be visited by boat – the original club members had their yachts that they delighted in showing off.
Then, a group of private investors took it over, on the condition that the state build a causeway. They restored the hotel to its distinctive elegant style, and reopened it in 1986. It is now a National Historic Landmark and a member of Historic Hotels of America, and as such, has that distinctive characteristic of being so much more than a “building” or “structure,” but a unique connection to the people, place, heritage and events that shaped the state of Georgia and the nation.
The Jekyll Island Club hotel is the centerpiece of a 240-acre historic district, dotted with Victorian era buildings that were part of the original Club, and the rest of the island is remarkably and wonderfully unspoiled, uncommercialized, with 65 percent of it preserved from development.
This connection to heritage and history is manifest in the historic photos that decorate the walls – that affirm how faithful to the original the property remains. Just as in the early years when the Club was opened to the general public, you absolutely get a thrill (as the first guests did after the state took over the Club) to sleep in the same rooms as these titans who had so much impact on shaping America.
Meeting and function rooms are named for these founding members: Pulitzer, Aldrich, Aspinwall and one room named “Federal Reserve.”
This strikes me as a puzzle, which I unravel later. It turns out that the outlines for the Federal Reserve were worked out here, at the Jekyll Island Club, by the “first name club” – a small group of literal “movers and shakers” of finance who met here secretly after the economic panic of 1907, to come up with some plan to reform the banking industry.
Using only their first names or nicknames, Nelson Aldrich, Henry Davison, A. Piatt Andrew, Benjamin Strong, Paul Warburg, and Frank Vanderlip left New Jersey by rail in a private car owned by Aldrich, a US Senator from Rhode Island, on their trip southward in mid-November, 1910.
This history does not seem so long ago, but instead resonates in the headlines today after the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression, followed by an attempt to inject reform into the financial industry, and the present controversy over the role of the Federal Reserve. It is all so juicy and exciting as you feel you have a front-row seat to history unfolding, the connection is so real, especially as you go through the Jekyll Island Museum, with photos and artifacts – even the phone.
History unfolds as you travel around Jekyll Island.
Colonial Ruins, a Slave Past
Early on my first morning, I take a drive to explore the island. Everything is engulfed in a dense fog. A vintage 1940s car dramatically emerges out of the fog setting the stage, perfectly, and I come upon the ruins of a colonial-era building.
This was the home of Major William Horton who was one of the top military aides to General James Oglethorpe, the man who was granted the Georgia colony (it was America’s 13th colony) and who named Jekyll Island for his friend, Sir Joseph Jekyll, an English politician who provided him funds (naming rights!)
The colony grew rapidly, and an immediate conflict developed with Spanish colonists in Florida. Oglethorpe quickly dispatched 30 recruits led by William Horton to construct the town and defenses at Frederica on St. Simons Island. After proving himself on St. Simons, Horton was granted 500 acres of land by the Trustees of the colony, and in April 1736 he ventured over to Jekyll Island to stake his claim. Horton died in 1748 and the remains of his house, built of a mixture of lime, sand and oyster shells (tabby), are among the oldest structures in Georgia. Over the next 40 years, Jekyll had a number of different owners, ranging from personal entities to a group of Frenchmen called the Sapelo Company, which included DuBignon, escaping the French Revolution in 1792.
The site also includes the cemetery of the DuBignon Family, which owned Jekyll Island from 1792-1886 and occupied the house as their home from 1794 until the mid-1800s.
The Horton House is one of the oldest buildings in Georgia, and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jekyll Island’s fortunes are tied to the DuBignon family who followed Horton.
Christophe DuBignon came to Jekyll Island in 1794, established a plantation and brought 16 slaves to work sea island cotton fields.
After Christophe’s death in 1825, the plantation was run by son, Henry Charles, until the Civil War.
On November 28, 1858, some 50 years after Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, the ship, Wanderer, sailed into the St. Andrews Sound south of Jekyll Island. On board were roughly 409 enslaved Africans, out of 487 initially boarded, who were illegally imported to the United States in one of the most sensational and controversial moments in Jekyll Island history. Henry and John DuBignon was implicated. Charges were brought against the crew and the ship’s owner, Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar of Savannah. They were all acquitted.
(Clementine Dubignon was the youngest of the enslaved Africans to survive the crossing. She was born aboard the Wanderer during the frightful voyage. Although John and Henry Dubignon were eventually acquitted for their part in the illegal slave trade, Clementine Dubignon’s very name was evidence of the family’s involvement.)
During the American Civil War, the Georgia coast as Union armies occupied much of the region from the early stages of the conflict. Residents fled, and when Union troops landed on Jekyll in 1862 the island was deserted, the DuBignon plantation in ruins. After the war, the DuBignon family returned and Henry, Christopher’s son, divided the island among his four children.
John Eugene duBignon in the late 1870s assumed ownership of part of the island, and subsequently purchased the remainder of Jekyll from his family. Forming a partnership with his brother-in-law and an investor, the three marketed the island as a winter retreat for wealthy businessmen and their families, using the Union Club in New York City as a model. They completed construction of a clubhouse in 1888, selling 53 shares for $600 each.
The Jekyll Island Club flourished during the Gilded Age and survived the Great Depression, which took its toll on the fortunes of many of its members mainly by opening up an “associate membership”. But in 1942, during World War II, the island was evacuated because of threats of of U-boats, and Jekyll Island Club closed its doors.
After the war, the Jekyll Island Club fell out of favor of the members who moved on to newer, posher, trendier retreats like Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1947, Governor Thompson pushed for the state of Georgia to acquire Jekyll Island for public use, and pay $675,000 – 20 cents per person. The proposition generated controversy, at a time when Georgia politics was in an uproar. They called Jekyll’s Island “Thompson’s Folly” and derided the proposal as a waste of money.
Thompson was challenged by State Senator Talmadge who derided the plan and defeated Thompson, but when Talmadge became governor, he supported the development of Jekyll Island by a private developer as “the people’s park”. It made going to island inexpensive, accessible, and preserved historic district.
The Jekyll Island Park Authority was created in 1950, as a self-sustaining entity with a 99 year lease (they charge $6 to come onto the island, and note the many improvements around the island paid for by the fee). Under the Authority, the Georgia beach was opened to black people before segregation was overturned.
Jekyll Island attracted tourists from around the country – guests were delighted at the chance to sleep where Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans had slept. Rooms went for $1.50-$3 per person; for an extra $5, you could rent a living room, furnished with luxurious antiques. (Being “the people’s park,” there are still excellent values and a range of accommodations, even a campground, and even the Jekyll Island Club, the most luxurious on the island, has rates that are relatively good value for a grand resort.)
By legislative mandate, 65 percent of the island is and will remain in a mostly natural state.
Private developers returned to operate the Jekyll Island Club Hotel and develop the island, but only after the state promised to build a causeway.
Exploring Jekyll Island
Though a small island, it is remarkable how Jekyll Island is a microcosm of the state and nation’s history, and how it is a visible and living history today and how much there is to do.
The park is actually self-sufficient, operated by the Jekyll Island Authority: you pay $6/ day when you come on the island, but all around the island – from the fishing piers to the boardwalk, to the bike trails, you see how the fees are used.
One of the best ways to explore Jekyll Island and experience it, too, is biking, and is clearly one of the popular activities on the island – I borrow a bike from the hotel (all are one-speed beach bikes, even at the rental shop) and bike leisurely around the– from about 11 to 4:30 pm, a beautiful ride almost entirely on bike paths. The island has some 22 miles of bike paths (it takes about 17 to ring the island).
My path goes along the river, alongside sea marshes, through forests of live oak dripping with Spanish moss. When I return in the late afternoon, a deer crosses my path at this point of the trail.
I pass a small private airport, then the Horton House and DuBignon Cemetery, and the campground.
At one tip of the island I come to Clam Creek picnic area – a lovely area with fishing pier, beach, horseback riding.
I pass neighborhoods, churches, a fishing lake, a selection of hotels and motels, the largest stretch of beach.
I come to a section of beach shops, including a very modest grocery store, wine shop, and a short distance away is a place where there are wonderful playgrounds, mini golf, bike rentals, and a pizza/ice cream snack shop.
Continuing on, I come to the new convention center, with a magnificent setting right on the beach – new hotels are going up (one is the Westin, which is owned by partners from the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, and the other is Hyatt Place; Jekyll Island Club will have transportation to the convention center).
They also own the Jekyll Island Hampton Inn and Suites, which I come to, which is close to the South Dunes Picnic Area, also known as “Glory Beach,” because a battle sequence from the Civil War-era film, “Glory” was filmed there and the legacy is a boardwalk.
Not too much further along, along the southern end of the island in the St. Andrews picnic area is The Wanderer Memorial to one of the last slave ships to come to the United States, in 1858. The Wanderer Memorial includes a sculpture by artist Mario Schambon and three text panels describing this event, the sensational trial of the slave runners, and the fate and legacy of many of the enslaved Africans. It was dedicated as recently as 2008, on the 150th Anniversary of the ships landing. (There is a certain irony to the memorial to the end of slavery being next door to a beach used as the set to bring honor to the black Civil War regiment).
Still continuing around the island, I come to Summer Waves, a waterpark, and finally back to Jekyll Island Club hotel and the historic Jekyll Wharf.
What strikes you is how uncommercialized, unpretentious, ungaudy or overdone the island is because two-thirds is preserved from development. And yet, our visit to Jekyll Island Club Hotel and the island presented many improvements and new activities and attractions in only these past few years.
There are several lodging choices on the island – including a wonderful campground; Villas by the Sea (1-3 bedroom condominiums, more of a time-share (www.villasbythesearesort.com); Beachview Club (beachviewclub.com), Days Inn and Suites (daysinnjekyll.com), Hampton Inn and Suites (jekyllislandhamptoninn.com); Oceanside Inn and Suites (oceansideinnandsuites.com), and Quality Inn and Suites (jekyllislandquality.com)
But for elegant, albeit casual/understated elegance, for that quiet charm, that sense of place and connection to not just the history of this place, but America’s history, you cannot beat the Jekyll Island Club (jekyllclub.com). (See Jekyll Island Club Hotel enchants with timeless charm and slideshow)
For more information, contact the Jekyll Island Authority, 877-453-5955, jekyllisland.com.
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