Whitney Wildfire Smoke Cumberland Island
Whitney Wildfire, Cumberland Island (Photo NPS)

A wildfire started by a lightning strike June 29, 2019 has been burning on Cumberland Island, covering over 400 acres as of July 10, 2019. Georgia’s largest, undeveloped barrier island, has 36,000 acres of maritime forest, salt marsh and beaches, with over 9,800 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness. The National Park Service (NPS) released some aerial footage of the wildfire, filmed a week ago from a helicopter (see below).

Cumberland Island’s North End

The Whitney wildfire ignited toward the north end of Cumberland Island. This area is far removed from where most travelers arrive on the island, at the National Park ferry dock located at Sea Camp (toward the south end). The north end area is the least traveled part of this 18-mile-long barrier island. However, there are significant historic structures in the north, in the High Point-Half Moon Bluff Historic District, 700 acres on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kennedy Wedding Took Place At The Settlement

The Half Moon Bluff area is better known as “The Settlement.” This is the location of the First African Baptist Church, the tiny chapel where the marriage of the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy took place. According to an NPS wildfire news release, “Crews established structure protection in The Settlement and High Point areas, and have held fire south of North Cut Road.”

Back in 1996, Cumberland Island was swept into the global spotlight when it was revealed as the wedding venue of what may still be, to this day, the best-kept secret wedding of one of the world’s most famous couples. JFK, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married, in the glow of soft candlelight, inside the historic church on September 21, 1996, in the presence of family and friends.

First African Baptist Church

Cumberland Island The Settlement, First African Baptist Church
Cumberland Island (The Settlement), First African Baptist Church

History of “The Settlement”

The Half Moon Bluff area was settled by some of the former slaves who worked plantations on Cumberland Island prior to the Civil War. Freed after the war ended in 1865, they continued to live on the island. But it wasn’t until almost 30 years later, around 1892, that a landowner bought additional property and then subdivided it, creating lots for sale to African Americans living on the island. Many were employed by the High Point hotel complex on the north end. The First African Baptist Church was an integral focus of The Settlement community for religious and educational purpose. The single-room church was rebuilt in 1937, according to the NPS.

High Point Hotels

As of 1878, two hotels were in business at High Point on Cumberland Island’s north end. The hotels reportedly thrived in the 1890s and early 1900s. But in 1920, High Point property owners sold, and a private club took over. Then, in 1928, the property was acquired by the Candler family of the Coca-Cola Company, becoming a private estate.

With the sale of the hotels, and economic hardship of the Great Depression years, and thereafter, the residents of The Settlement left the island, homes abandoned. Then storms, the hot, humid climate, the passing of time and termites took their toll. Many years later, when the National Park Service procured most of the island’s property, creating the Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972, hardly any structures still stood in The Settlement area. But the tiny church endured.

Aerial View of Wildfire, NPS Video

At the wildfire’s peak, nearly 70 firefighters and personnel were mobilized to contain it. But this week, with the wildfire considered about 85% contained, personnel was reportedly reduced to ten. “Fire is a part of Cumberland Island’s ecosystem and occurs at regular intervals as part of the natural fire cycle,” according to the NPS.

The NPS indicated that the previous creation of a “fuel break along North Cut Road” (i.e. clearing away natural debris of the wilderness that could fuel a forest fire), proved effective preventative fire management. In the past two years, the Cumberland Island National Seashore’s fire management team “created a defensible zone fire crews are using [in the Whitney wildfire] to protect the island’s historic structures and residences to the north.”

Cumberland Island wilderness fire break National Park Service
Cumberland Island Wilderness “Fire Break” (Photo by NPS)

Settlement Structures Safe

The historical structures of The Settlement have been kept safe, thanks to efforts of fire fighters and the preventative action that had been implemented by NPS fire management.

Cumberland Island Van Tours

During the wildfire, visitors had been restricted from Cumberland Island’s north end. The Lands & Legacies van tours that go to The Settlement, were temporarily suspended. However, as of July 11, 2019, the Lands & Legacies tour “resumed its normal route and itinerary,” according to an NPS update.

A Tragic Ending

This week is the 20th Anniversary of the Kennedy couple’s untimely deaths in 1999, just three years after they wed. Their private plane, piloted by JFK, Jr., with wife Carolyn and her sister, Lauren Bessette, on board, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. The Kennedy and Bessette families, their friends and many around the world mourned in the aftermath of the shocking tragedy. Their loss is still felt today.

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See the Cumberland Island National Seashore’s Facebook page to follow further fire updates.