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Glynn County: History and Lore: Ed Green Book:

St. Simons History


Automobiles, the Causeway, and Sea Island

The early resort period had been largely limited to the people who could come by train and ferry. The resort consisted of wooden buildings clustered near the pier, most of which were boarded up for nine months of the year. The island was still largely wilderness, with few roads.

This picture changes rapidly with the coming of the mass produced automobile and the improvement of roads for these cars. St. Simons Island was about the only one of the Georgia coastal islands still available for development. Most of the islands were the private property of rich people holding them as a private retreat and hunting grounds.

Many persons saw the possibility of development, but the story can best be told in relationship to the vision, imagination, and wise judgement of Howard Coffin.

Mr. Coffin was an automobile engineer in the very early days of the new industry. He was born of Quaker parents on a farm near West Milton, Ohio; attended high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan; then studied engineering at the University of Michigan. He had the vision of producing a low cost car which would sell for less than a thousand dollars and would therefore be available to a mass market.

In 1902 he went to work for the Olds Motor Works of Detroit, thus beginning a career which would soon make him one of the most famous of the automobile builders and very wealthy as well. After Olds decided to stay with the expensive car, he served other companies until he was able to achieve his dream of an inexpensive car to sell to the average man on the street. With the financial backing of the Hudson department stores of Detroit and with their customers in mind for the cars, he brought into being the Hudson car, the first model a four-cylinder roadster selling for $900. This company boomed, and so did his fortunes.

The first visit of Mr. Coffin to the coast of Georgia was in 1910 to attend the Savannah Road Race. Early automobile manufacturers liked to test their latest models in races over winding dirt roads, and the race held at Savannah had attracted wide attention. Mr. and Mrs. Coffin made this trip to watch their cars perform, but making it a vacation trip in a way, coming in a leisurely journey by train. They immediately fell in love with the beauty and history of the Golden Isles of the Georgia coast. Being well able to afford a private island, like many of his rich friends already had, he purchased the 20,000 acres of marsh and highland that made up Sapelo Island from the five families who owned it. Thus, he had a vacation retreat, a showplace to entertain, and a reason to return often to the Georgia coast.

His real importance to St. Simons Island history, however, is the vision he had for development with the coming of the automobile roads. Soon after the end of World War I the mass sales of autos far surpassed the improvement of roads for their travel. Gradually a coastal highway began to inch down from the north, and it was only time until the now U.S. 17 would bring the tourists. He knew that there was money to be made in owning land in strategic places along such a highway, particularly in areas where there could be resort activity. So he purchased many tracts of land.

The other factor in development of St. Simons Island, besides the coastal highway, was the building of a causeway. Imagine autos carrying carloads of people to the island in fifteen minutes, instead of the slow trip by ferry and then the lack of transportation after arriving at the pier!

No one knows who first thought of building a causeway to St. Simons Island. Probably across the years many people thought of this possibility. It has even been suggested that General Oglethorpe may have considered it as an escape avenue for his soldiers and colonists. Yet, the first person to talk about it long and loud enough to get movement in that direction was William T. McCormick in about the year 1920. No one would listen to him at first, but he continued to talk about it so much anyway that many people began to consider him slightly balmy. Finally, he did interest some investors in island property and access by a causeway. Money being so tight they planned for what seemed the shortest, less expensive route, which was from the coastal highway about ten miles north of Brunswick. They actually did begin construction by clearing a road from the highway to the marsh, but then running into difficulty and financial uncertainty, abandoned the project without ever getting out into the marsh.

This beginning, however, had sparked considerable interest in the project and soon popular opinion supported a joint bond issue by the City of Brunswick and Glynn County to provide the funds. With money available it was felt wise to construct it closer to Brunswick, and after consulting with state highway engineers a route was projected. Fortunately, they were wise enough to consult a native son and competent engineer, Mr. F.J. Torras, to check the route and make a survey of the marsh. His recommendation, which was adopted, brought it still another mile closer to the city and several miles closer to the south end of St. Simons. Construction proceeded smoothly, and the causeway was opened on July 11, 1924, with the greatest celebration in Brunswick history. Guests came by train, by boat, by automobile, by horse and buggy. Special trains brought guests from afar. More than 5,000 automobiles crossed the causeway that day; the first of the great parade had reached the island before the last of it had entered the new road. Officials in both high and low positions made long speeches. A great pageant was performed. A huge dinner was served; under old, moss draped live oak trees hundreds of tables were erected and a shore dinner was served to 7,500 visitors.

This easy access to the island was not lost on developer Howard Coffin. He soon purchased the land of former Retreat Plantation on the south end of the island and other tracts. The roads on this still almost wilderness island needed to be improved and new ones were needed. To go to the village and pier it was then necessary to cross to the east side of the island on Demeree road, passing Bloody Marsh, and following the old military road to the south end of the village. So he had a new road cut directly from the causeway to the south end of the island, which he named "Kings Way." He also built Retreat Avenue, a continuation of Frederica road on southward beyond Demeree to the entrance of Retreat Plantation. Here at Retreat he began laying out a golf course. Even though he did not play golf himself, he saw the "potential" in golf course development. He constructed a yacht club here and was in his mind projecting a hotel on the Frederica river.

Mr. Coffin had also purchased an island to the east which had a very fine beach and a short, mud-road causeway which had been dredged up by earlier developers to connect the island to St. Simons. For years this rather barren island had been used for no more than pasture for hogs and goats and other animals. In early days it had been known as Fifth Creek Island. We do not know whether this is from the Creek Indians or had to do with the counting of the numerous creeks. Some navigational maps refer to it as the Isle of Palms. By this time most people called it Long Island. Mr. Coffin at first named it Glynn Isle and later changed it to Sea Island.

A friend who had much experience with real estate development in Florida advised him to abandon his idea of building a big hotel on St. Simons overlooking the intercoastal waterway. Modern resort hotels were moving to the beaches, their windows overlooking the sea. He agreed that this little island across the marshes would be an ideal place for his development. Envisioned was an eight story, high rise hotel on the beach, with a community of "cottages" surrounding it. This was projected for the middle of the island between 29th and 32nd streets. Grading had already begun when Mr. Coffin started to have second thoughts. What kind of people would come to this resort? What would they want for entertainment? Who would be attracted to purchase the cottages? Would it attract some of the undesirable features already evident at some of the resorts in Florida?

Those who investigated for him in Florida, recommended that they "take it easy". So it was decided to settle for a small, comfortable inn, where people could stay and decide whether they liked the place enough to build a "cottage". The location for the hotel was moved to the south end of the island and was named the "Cloister." Opening celebrations were in October, 1928.

A tremendous publicity department was created, and over the next months were welcomed a continuing parade of tycoons, sportsmen, artists, writers, statesmen, and editors from all over the country. The new, little resort was quickly becoming known. An early achievement came in 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge was persuaded to spend his Christmas holiday with Howard Coffin and to pose for his picture planting an oak tree on the south lawn of the Cloister. This photograph was printed in all the newspapers of the country. Guests today may now see this tree with 53 years of growth. Such publicity allowed the Cloister to have in its first year of operation more bookings than it could handle.

So, with its reputation established, its type of clientele, and the wisdom of staying with a modest resort, the business was able to weather the soon-to-come depression better than most resorts and later, during World War II, was able to continue operation when most hotels had been taken over by the armed services. This small inn, across two rather rickety causeways, was not well suited for government use.

From the beginning, the company sought to attract a special clientele. It did not encourage the guests who wanted gambling, race tracks, and exotic night clubs. Neither did it encourage the social set who once thronged to resorts to show off their jewels and furs. Rather, the publicity department sent letters such as the one to the two thousand members of the Detroit Athletic Club in 1931. It made an appeal to the business man carrying heavy responsibilities to come for old-fashioned simple rest; a place where nerves, minds, and bodies could have complete relaxation that rebuilds: exercise, good food, restful sleep; the sound of waves on the beach and the smell of pine forests in the air. Come here to "find a wealth of romance and history to charm your mind while nature mends jaded nerves."

With that type of appeal, they did come! William Gibbs McAdoo, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Eddie Rickenbacker, Dean Acheson, Arthur Brisbane, Gladys Swarthout, Thomas W. Dewey, Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., just to name a few.

A young racing pilot, Jimmy Doolittle, came-still years away from his famous bombing run over Tokyo, Vice-President Alben Barkley spent his honeymoon here. In fact honeymoons became a tradition. In 1981 the count of honeymoon couples, since June 1940, when the count began, passed 27,000. Children and grandchildren of former honeymoon couples are now coming.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Gerald Ford when guests both had live oak trees planted in their honor, as did her majesty Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, when she and her consort Prince Bernhard spent the Easter weekend here in 1952.

In 1931 the nation's most famous playwright, Eugene O'Neill, came seeking a peaceful place to live and work. He built a home on a six lot spread on the ocean at 19th Street. While here he wrote his only comedy, "Ah Wilderness. " Although he avoided social life, his presence did attract visitors of similar talents - Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Lillian Gish, Bennet Cerf, among others. He kept this home until 1936, the year he was awarded the Nobel prize, when he moved to California, still trying to find the peace of mind he was forever seeking.

Sarah Churchill, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill and an actress of some renown, had been on an American tour in a stock company playing "The Philadelphia Story". After the sixteen week tour closed in Atlanta, she came to the Cloister for some rest, relaxation, and sunshine. With her was a young Englishman, Anthony Beauchamp, a British society photographer specializing in portraits. While here they decided to get married, and on October 17, 1949, they went to Fort Frederica to announce to the press and to the world that they would be married the next day.

In 1927 while the resort was still under construction, a young pilot, Paul Redfern, who was skilled in flying over the north Georgia swamps looking for moonshiners, took off from Sea Island beach in an attempt to solo flight to Brazil. The plane was last seen two hundred miles off the South American coast, but never heard from again.

A young aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh, enroute to Mexico after his famed flight to Paris, had been guests of Mr. Coffin and Mr. Jones, landing in a pasture on nearby Sapelo Island. The trip was memorable for Lindbergh; while in Mexico City he met the ambassador's daughter, Anne Morrow, whom he later was to marry.

In more recent times, newly elected President Jimmy Carter brought together his new Cabinet at the Cloister. Later, when President Carter used Musgrove Plantation, a present day plantation on St. Simons, as a vacation retreat, the Cloister staff provided the household services and food which were needed.

About this same time on the north end of Sea Island near the Hampton river, black men and women had been crowded into cages and loaded aboard ships, where ABC television photographers had found the foliage and the beaches they needed to film Alex Haley's "Roots".

Howard Coffin, who had the vision of this resort development, died in 1937, and the enterprize was carried on by his cousin, Alfred W. Jones, who had long worked with him. The visitor to Christ Church cemetery, after seeing the tombs of the island people featured in the historical novels of Eugenia Price, would do well to also visit the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Coffin. They will see there a somewhat unusual placing of the graves. The plot is a square enclosed by a two foot high tabby wall. The simple gravestones lie flat and are not parallel with the walls but are on a diagonal. This reflects a curious idea of Mr. Coffin. When alive, whenever possible, he slept with his head to the north, for he believed that if he did not, the rotation of the earth had a deleterious effect on the circulation of the blood.

Of course, the Cloister was not the only development in this later resort era. The King and Prince Hotel was built on the beach at St. Simons. There is the more recent Sea Palms resort. Then, there is Epworth-by-the Sea, the conference and program grounds of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Arthur J. Moore was the moving spirit behind this development. Built on the very historic ground at Gascoigne Bluff-once Hamilton Plantation, then the site of the great sawmills, then a vegetable farm - Methodists and members of many other denominations come together, not only from Georgia, but from all parts of the world. The museum located there is filled with treasures of Methodist history, including two original, handwritten letters of John Wesley. A life-size statue of Bishop Arthur J. Moore, made of wax in London, England, welcomes the visitor to see the vast collection of his momentos and treasures from around the world.

This late resort era continues today, as it blends into the most recent historic era, the Residential Period of the island.

Next Section: The Residential Era