- Historic Sites
Private Fastness: Tales Of Wild
CUMBERLAND ISLAND AND HOW MODERN TIMES AT LAST HAVE REACHED IT
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
It is almost impossible to believe, roaming through Cumberland’s dense, dark forests, where some live oaks measure three or four feet in diameter, that the island has been inhabited for so long. Not only that, but in ante-bellum days Cumberland was almost cleared to accommodate hundreds of acres of seaisland cotton. In addition to Dungeness, there were several other cotton plantations flourishing on the island before the Civil War. The largest and most successful of these belonged to a man named Robert Stafford, the son of one of Cumberland’s first settlers after the Revolution. Eventually Stafford’s holdings eame to include much of the property that had once belonged to General Greene. Stafford actually had two plantations on Cumberland, and in order to produce superior crops, he encouraged rivalry between the plantations, each of which was managed separately. Hundreds of slaves toiled in the carefully manicured fields. Stafford Place cotton was of excellent quality, and Robert Stafford became an extremely successful planter. He had a summer home in the North, plenty of cash to invest, and daughters travelling all over Europe. But after the war he never planted on Cumberland again. There is a local story that when the war was over, Stafford drove away all his former slaves, saying he had no more use for them or they for him. Then he burned their cabins to the ground. Today, you can still sec the chimneys and foundations of the cabins, almost reclaimed by the wild tangle of vegetation except for the cleared spots where archaeologists have dug.
Stafford must have loved the island, because he chose to live out his days at his plantation home, dying there in 1877 at the age of eightyseven. A few Negro families, some of whom may number among the descendants of the Stafford slaves, still live on the northern end of the island. The old Stafford home, an enormous, beautifully proportioned plantation residence, was standing in the 1880’s when members of the Carnegie family first visited the island. It burned in 1901.
Louisa Greene Shaw died childless in 1831, leaving Dungeness to Phineas Miller Nightingale, the young boy who had met Light-Horse Harry Lee on the wharf. The Nightingale family operated Dungeness plantation until the start of the Civil War, retiring to the mainland like the other island families during hostilities. Northern officers used the grand old mansion as a headquarters after 1862, and when they left, they stripped the house of even its marble mantels and its books. I n 1866 Dungcness went up in flames and was never rebuilt. Only one of the Nightingales’ tabby buildings, a few scattered olive trees, and the little cemetery remain to remind us of the era of Kitty Greene.
In 1881, when Thomas Morrison Carnegie Andrew’s brother—and his wile Lucy first visited Cumberland, the ruined walls of Dungcness were still standing. The Carnegies were so struck by the beauty and charm of the island that they decided to build a winter home there. Though Thomas Carnegie died suddenly in 1886, his remarkable wife, Lucy Coleman Carnegie, like Kitty Greene a century earlier, erected a monumental home almost on the site of the ruins of the old Dungeness. The third Dungcness Mrs. Carnegie retained the name was a truly elephantine édifice said to have had a hundred rooms and to have cost two hundred thousand dollars. It was built, of course, before the days of income taxes, and Mrs. Carnegie had each stone for the mansion transported from Baltimore by water. When it was finished, its colossal, Gothic bulk and rather formal, wallcd-in gardens dominated the south end of the island.
At Dungeness Mrs. Carnegie lived in rustic but baronial splendor, entertaining a multitude of family friends from Pittsburgh who came to hunt and fish or to ride around the island on horseback or in one of the innumerable touring cars now rusting in the mansion garage. The guests might also go for a swim in the indoor swimming pool in the enormous, 150-foot-long casino, specially built for Mrs. Carnegie and complete with dressing rooms, gymnastic equipment, a billiard parlor, and a number of apartments. Not satisfied with a landlubber’s life, Mrs. Carnegie, an avid sportswoman and the first of her sex admitted to membership in the New York Yacht Club, built a lavish yacht, also called Dungeness , for sailing in the sea islands. She later erected several palatial homes near Dungeness for her children.
Although the great mansion burned in 1959 and many of the outbuildings have fallen into disrepair, the island retains an atmosphere of only slightly decayed elegance. A patina of the Jazz Age clings to the brooding hulk of the ruined mansion and to the sections of the island where a few Carnegie “heirs” still live. Such is the spell of the place—the loom of the old buildings, the grownover, private eighteen-hole golf course now used as a landing strip, the once-flashy automobiles rusting in the dark garage, the yellowing photographs in the old family album —that one would not be surprised to see Jay Gatsby pull up the drive at Greyfield, one of the Carnegie homes, dismount from his Fierce-Arrow, and ask if anyone wished to go for a midnight swim in the casino.