Jekyll Island has secrets that almost no one knows. It was the playground of the super-rich. The Jekyll Island Club was so exclusive that only the richest could join. Banking and railroad tycoons owned most of the country, we called it the gilded age. When my ancestors were working in coal mines the super-rich were deciding how to spend the winter, to relax among their other super-rich, elite friends.
Until about a year ago, I had never heard of Jekyll Island. One friend mentioned that he liked camping there. At that point, I knew only that Jekyll Island was on the Atlantic Coast in Georgia. I assumed that it was not near any cities and on an island. I figured out the last part all by myself based on the name.
Jekyll Island is the second island north of the Georgia/Florida border. In terms of distance, this is about twenty miles north of Amelia Island, Florida. The southernmost island in southeast Georgia is Cumberland Island.
In the same era as Jekyll Island Club, Andrew Carnegie owned nearly all of Cumberland Island. Carnegie built a huge winter home on Cumberland Island. One of the Jekyll Island secrets is that Carnegie was not listed as a member of the Jekyll Island Club. Andrew Carnegie was the owner of Carnegie Steel (namesake of Carnegie Hall and Carnegie Mellon University). He had a mansion on Cumberland Island, only five miles away, and was super-rich. This is not to say that Carnegie wasn’t welcome at Jekyll Island. When your fortune is greater than John Rockefeller the doors are open to you as a neighbor.
After departing Charleston South Carolina, we spent one night in Savanna Georgia. When we were visiting Jekyll Island, we were staying at Kings Bay Naval Base in southern Georgia. Kings Bay is just to the west of Cumberland Island. We had a wonderful time in Charleston staying at a county park in James Island. Here is a quick link to our post about our stay and what we found. Charleston Charm
Jekyll Island History
Just like most of the south Jekyll Island (and Cumberland Island) had its history in English Colonies. The Georgia coastline was the setting for Plantations. Cotton was the number one crop in this area. The Civil War ended the plantation culture and slavery. I outline the general history of this period in my post. Carolina Plantations
Jekyll Island and Cumberland Island were both plantations that failed after the Civil War and both were owned by the super-rich. Carnegie purchased Cumberland Island as his private playground by Carnegie. Jekyll Island was remade into an exclusive membership-only hunting club. The focus was to cater to the members and encourage associations between members.
Rockefeller (Standard Oil), Vanderbilt (shipping and trains), J.P.Morgan (banking and Wall Street), Pulitzer (printing), Goodyear (trains, lumber, and coal, but not tires), and Gould (finance and trains), all were members of the Jekyll Island Club. Overall there were about sixty members but I just picked some of the recognizable names. One quote I saw said that owners of one-sixth of the world’s wealth was present at dinner time at the clubhouse.
Another one of the Jekyll Island secrets was that membership was by invitation only. Invitations were only extended to people who were fun to be around. Just being super-rich wasn’t enough. Of course, being super-rich was required just to afford the initial membership fee and dues, this excluded most people.
J.P.Morgan facilitated the meeting at the Jekyll Island Club of our countries biggest bankers. First, he made sure that the club members that would be arriving at the club in November, would not be there. This perhaps is the biggest of the Jekyll Island secrets.
Morgan hosted this group of exclusive bankers at the club, all of who arrived without disclosing their location. The meeting was so secret that they only used their first names so that the service staff wouldn’t know who these men were. The result of the meeting was the creation of the Federal Reserve Board and our monetary system.
Some of the super-rich members decided to build “cottages” on the property. Their idea of a cottage is much larger than my idea. In this case, they are not extravagant houses that they normally would build. One of the Jekyll Island secrets is that even though members build individual cottages nearly all of the houses lacked kitchens and dining rooms.
The reason that the houses didn’t have kitchens was that social life at the club was an important part of membership. The members ate every meal every day at the clubhouse. For them, this means that every meal was a dress-up affair. This also means that some of the members changed clothes three times a day and never wore the same outfit twice. Lots of luggage to move that many changes of clothes. Mrs. Rockefeller had 90 steamer trunks shipped to the Island for the “season.”
We visited the Rockefeller house as part of the tour and while everything was nice, it wasn’t like the Biltmore Mansion that the Vanderbilts created in Asheville North Carolina. In case you missed it here is our coverage of the Biltmore that we visited this spring. Amazing Biltmore Palace
Another one of the secrets is that was that not all members built their own cottages. Next to the clubhouse was the annex. Jekyll Island Clubhouse annex was like a super-luxury hotel.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression ended the extravagance even for the super-rich and also started the end of the Jekyll Island Club. The final straw that finally closed the club was World War II. For a while, during the war, the club operated was on a maintenance-only staff. A German U-boat was sighted off the island during the war.
After the war, Georgia condemned the Jekyll Island Club and purchased the property. Georgia was specifically looking to purchase one of the barrier islands to make a state park. Georgia condemned the island they got it for a fraction of the invested price.
Made into a State Park
This is another situation where the government thought they could do better than private enterprise. Georgia tried to operate the island as a state park but it also failed and closed it to the public in 1971 because it was a financial drain on the state budget. The park was listed on the National Historic Register after the closure. This listing meant that Georgia had to find a way to make sure that it didn’t fall down.
The Georgia government was the owner, and after they decided to close the island to the public, they failed to provide security. Looters would go through the buildings and cart off anything they could carry, never to be seen again. These two stained glass windows survived unharmed and unmolested by the looters.
Eventually, Georgia figured out a way to make the island profitable enough to run. This included letting private companies profit from the investment. This includes leasing the Jekyll Island Club to the Raddison Hotel Chain for a while.
Interesting Mixed use
I guess it is not one of Jekyll Island’s secrets but I wasn’t too surprised to find the development on the island, other than at the Jekyll Island Club. What I didn’t expect to find was private neighborhoods along the Atlantic side of the island. Who were these people and why are they living at a state park. I still don’t have a good answer to that question but we did make a nice bike ride through the neighborhood.
Much of Jekyll Island is still wild (swamp) especially on the north end where we took our bike ride. We started at the Fishing Pier at the north end and then circled the north half of the island. Our first stop was at Driftwood Beach (picture also at the top). After that, we were surprised by the neighborhood area which was complete with a bistro and bed and breakfast lodging. We turned west after seeing the two hotels.
After crossing the island we passed the airport and then the old plantation house. A little further north we rode through the campground. As far as campgrounds go, it was perhaps good enough. It would be hard to get a good site that had any privacy. It is a good candidate for a full remodel.