With the history of Gascoigne Bluff so richly-ensconced here in the Golden Isles, last week’s column on the significance of this section of St. Simons Island scarcely scratched the surface.
In doing so, it just barely nicked the real story behind Hamilton Plantation, a spread of prime real estate along the bluff whose narrative continued long after that of the grandiose Antebellum era and its privileged planter class. The name is readily recognizable around here still today, and necessarily conjures Tara-like images of lavish mansions among sweeping manicured estates.
For good reason, too. Few profited more from the exorbitant wealth synonymous with this agricultural system than the plantation’s namesake, James Hamilton, who grew the highly-prized Sea Island cotton on some 2,000 acres here. He also was something of snowbird, spending much of his time at 260 Walnut St. in Philadelphia. In fact, by the time of his death in 1829, the millionaire Hamilton was living full-time in his Philadelphia manor.
All told, his time on St. Simons Island as proprietor of Hamilton Plantation spanned roughly 30 years. He was not its first owner, nor its last. And the land certainly did more good for more people in the rough-and-tumble timber-boom era that followed, when the sawmills on Hamilton land employed hundreds of working men, white and black.
The land was still known as Hamilton Plantation in the mid 20th century, when it switched hands from A.J. Jones of the Sea Island resort to the Methodist Church representatives who built the tranquil retreat that sits on the land today, Epworth By The Sea.
Last week’s column brushed over this for reasons of space, commenting on the Hamilton plantation of the early 19th century and jumping ahead to the land’s 1949 purchase by the Methodists. At least two readers wrote afterward to point out the oversight of this leap in time. One native kindly noted that I had it wrong, that Jones and Sea Island actually “gifted” the land to Epworth. I told him my information came from the esteemed local historian Margaret Davis Cate, but that I would double-check.
But anyway, let us skip back for now. The Bluff itself is known for Capt. James Gascoigne, the seafarer who escorted the first British settlers to St. Simons Island in 1736. Now let us jump ahead. Alexander Bissett acquired the land sometime after the Revolutionary War; he was “one of the first to plant and export (Sea Island) Cotton,” Cate wrote in an essay about Gascoigne Bluff.
When Bissett died, a planter named Richard Leake took over the land.
Enter Hamilton, a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Coastal Georgia about the time of the Revolutionary War (along with fellow Scotsman and St. Simons planter John Couper). By 1793, Hamilton established himself among the island’s planter class at his plantation on Gascoigne Bluff.
Hamilton’s estate would come to epitomize the luxury and affluence attained by the elite of the Antebellum period.
“He had a two-story frame house fronting on the river,” R. Edward Green writes in St. Simons Island: A Summary of its History.
“It had sturdy colonial lines on high-latticed foundations and a wide piazza. Spacious gardens and broad lawns surrounded the plantation house.”
Green goes on to note that the fertile St. Simons soil and the high prices Sea Island Cotton commanded made Hamilton “one of the richest men in America.” Of course, from the fertile Southern soil to the New York Stock Exchange, those who grew wealthy from this economic system did so on the basis of human bondage — the sinful stain of slavery.
That Antebellum era came crashing to an end with the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Arising from the economic ashes of the Reconstruction-era came the Georgia timber boom, employing hundreds of newly-freed blacks and struggling whites.
“With the coastal area still abounding in in great live oak and pine trees, Hamilton Plantation became the center of a new industry,” writes S. Walter Martins in Epworth: A Mission By The Sea. “The plantation was purchased by a large lumber company about 1870, and sawmilling became the chief activity at Gascoigne Point.”
Most prominent of a succession of lumber concerns was the Hilton-Dodge Company. The Hamilton Plantation home became a boarding home for workers, until it burned down in 1885. The old Hamilton barn? It became the company store.
Lovely Lane Chapel that still welcomes worshippers at Epworth was built for white mill workers; St. Ignatius Church that still holds services on Demere Road was built for black workers.
The timber industry boomed until there was little timberland to harvest, which occurred in the early 1900s. A Georgia farmer from Moultrie tried his hand a reviving cotton on portions of the plantation afterward, only to fall prey to the boll weevil in 1920s.
Then, along came Detroit banking financier Eugene W. Lewis. Lewis was introduced to Coastal Georgia’s warm salt breezes by his friend Howard Coffin, who developed the Sea Island resort along with his younger cousin and protégé, Alfred E. Jones.
Eugene took to island living like a modern-day tourist to a rental golf cart. So, in 1927, Eugene bought the Hamilton Plantation. But this Michigan banker did not intend to sit idly by watching the tides roll in. No, Eugene intended to farm the land.
And how does that get us to Jones and the sale of Hamilton Plantation to the Methodists 22 years later? Stay tuned, folks. We’ve only scratched the surface.