The major attractions in fast-growing Camden County are Cumberland Island National Seashore, the St. Marys National Historic District, and Crooked River State Park. Visiting Cumberland Island requires boat transportation. Having a tremendous economic impact on the area and open to occasional tours is the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, home of the technologically advanced Trident nuclear submarine fleet. The county also boasts three good-eating festivals: the Woodbine Crawfish Festival, the Kingsland Catfish Festival, and the St. Marys Rock Shrimp Festival (See Appendix D).
[Fig. 22] A quaint river town perched on Buttermilk Bluff, St. Marys has served as the location of an Indian village, colonial settlement, and, more recently, a U.S. Naval base. One of the oldest towns in Georgia, it boasts a national historic district and functions as the embarkation point for Cumberland Island. Visitors may want to first buy tickets for their Cumberland Island trip, then spend time in the historic district until it's time to board the ferry.
Some historic accounts say St. Marys was the site of a Timucuan Indian village, Tlathlothlaguphta, which translates to "rotten fish." It is believed that French Captain Jean Ribault visited this village in 1562 and sailed up the St. Marys River, which he named the Seine. In 1568, the Spanish founder of St. Augustine, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, established a mission on Amelia Island called Santa Maria de Guadeloupe.
During the Revolutionary War, the British established a fort on Point Peter called Fort Tonyn, which controlled the southern part of Georgia for two years. Built at the junction of Peter Creek and the St. Marys River in 1776, the fort was repeatedly attacked by American forces and eventually abandoned.
In 1787, Jacob Weed, owner of a 1,672-acre tract of land near the river, sold shares of the property to 19 other shareholders for $38, which entitled them to four blocks of high land, marsh property, and a share of the commons. Surveyor James Finley laid out the town the next year and it still has the same configuration and uses many of the original 20 founders' names. First named Saint Patrick, it was changed in 1792 to Saint Marys, an anglicized version of the Amelia Island mission name.
While Florida was under the control of the Spanish from 17831821, St. Marys prospered as the southernmost seaport in the U.S., as many agricultural and timber products were shipped from tidewater plantations and timberlands located upstream. Shipbuilding and sawmills were important industries. Several historic buildings survive from this period, including the 1801 Clark home, visited by Aaron Burr and General Winfield Clark, and the First Presbyterian Church, the third oldest church in Georgia, built in 1808.
Other early settlers of this region were French Acadians, who were driven from their Canadian homelands in the middle of the eighteenth century. Their names are found on tombstones in historic Oak Grove Cemetery.
As a border town, St. Marys occasionally suffered raids from the south by smugglers and hostile Indians who were encouraged by the Spanish in Florida. One local legend tells how smugglers stole a horse, carried it to the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church, and tied a bell rope around the horse's neck. The horse tried to free itself, causing the bell to ring and diverting the town's attention from the activities of smugglers who were trying to avoid payment of duty on their goods. During the War of 1812, the town was attacked and captured by the British, who occupied the town until they learned the war was over.
St. Marys was abandoned during the Civil War, after which the town went into general decline due to the devastation of the southern economy. Adding to the town's stagnation were inland railroads, which successfully competed with shipping as a mode of transporting goods. The town was helped when it became the county seat from 1871 to 1923, then started to flourish when a large pulp mill was built in the 1940s, bringing better wages to locals. The selection of Kings Bay as a submarine base for the U.S. Atlantic Trident fleet gave the community a tremendous economic boost that continues today. The creation of the Cumberland Island National Seashore in the 1970s and the growth of ecotourism have brought additional prosperity to Camden County during the 1980s and 1990s, making it one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S. St. Marys is now known as "The Gateway to Cumberland Island."
[Fig. 22(1)] The National Historic District, recognized in 1976, has more than 30 buildings and an old cemetery. Bounded by Alexander and Norris streets, Waterfront Road, and Oak Grove Cemetery, the history lover will find much of interest in the nineteenth and early twentieth century homes located here. Of special interest is the beautiful Orange Hall, built in 1829, which houses the St. Marys Welcome Center. Historic site tours begin at Orange Hall. Across the street is the graceful First Presbyterian Church, built in 1808. Start your tours from the St. Marys Welcome Center. On the waterfront are the St. Marys Pavilion, Fishing Dock, and Boat Ramp, as well as the National Park Service building and dock where nature lovers book trips on the Cumberland Queen to Cumberland Island (see Cumberland Island). Fishing and crabbing is allowed from the pier.
[Fig. 22(2)] Located on the St. Marys Waterfront, the Submarine Museum tells the story of the invention, development, and military record of the submarine. Military and naval buffs will appreciate the storehouse of models, displays, exhibits, plaques, movies, and other memorabilia relating to the stealthy fighting ships. A working periscope allows viewers to spy on the St. Marys River area, and one section commemorates the eight submariners who received the Medal of Honor. Situated across from the Cumberland Island Ferry, the museum provides an interesting diversion for tourists waiting to depart or just returning from Cumberland Island.
Exhibits highlight the people of the island including Native Americans, African Americans , the Carnegie family and others who lived on the island in the 19th and 20th centuries
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