Explore Sapelo Island - Located midway on the Georgia coastline, Sapelo Island is defined by the Sapelo River to the north, the waters of Doboy Sound to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Duplin River to the west. Stay and Play in Georgia!
Sapelo Island - The 16,500 acre island is the 4th largest barrier island in the State of Georgia. At nearly 18,000 acres, Sapelo is Georgia's fourth largest island at 10 miles long and 3 miles wide, and it retains many natural features. By state law, all of Georgia's barrier island beaches are state property and open to the public. The public is allowed to use Sapelo's beaches for hiking, picnicking, or shelling during daylight hours. Public access to the interior of the island is limited and advance tour arrangements are required.
Located 60 miles south of Savannah opposite McIntosh County's mainland, Sapelo has four active components: the University of Georgia's Marine Institute, the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, the R.J. Reynolds (Sapelo Island) Wildlife Refuge, and the Hog Hammock Community. The four entities divide the 17,950-acre island (10,900 acres of uplands and 5.5 miles of beach) into different uses.
Visitors to Sapelo Island can see virtually every facet of a barrier island's natural community, from the forested uplands, to the vast salt marsh, and the complex beach and dunes systems. The mainland Visitor Center brings to life both the natural and cultural history of Sapelo, while guided island tours highlight the African-American community of Hog Hammock, University of Georgia Marine Institute, Reynolds Mansion and newly restored lighthouse. Built in 1820, the lighthouse was in service until 1905 when it was deactivated. Following its 1998 restoration, it once again became a working aid in navigation.
Guided Tours: Wednesday 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (mansion and island) and Saturday 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (lighthouse and island). From June through Labor Day, an additional tour is offered Friday 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (lighthouse and island). Extended tour offered the last Tuesday of the month, March-October, 8:30 a.m.- 3 p.m. (lighthouse, mansion and island). Reservations required.
Pioneer Campground: Groups of 15-25 people may camp near the beach on Sapelo's Cabretta Island. Comfort station with hot showers available. Reynolds Mansion: Groups of 16-29 people may stay at this home originally designed and constructed by Thomas Spalding in 1807. Meals and transportation included.
Sapelo Island Estuaries are those areas where fresh water from rivers and streams meets salt water from the ocean. These areas are extremely important, as they are some of the most biologically productive systems in the world. Estuaries serve several vital functions including providing food, nesting, and nursery ground habitat for aquatic animals as well as a variety of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Furthermore, these salt marsh systems offer filter, buffer, and "sponge-like" capabilities unlike any other ecosystem on earth.
The Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR), located on the western perimeter of Sapelo, is dedicated to research, education, stewardship, and sound management of coastal resources in Georgia. Specifically, we focus on the natural, cultural, and historical resources of Sapelo Island and the Duplin River estuary. SINERR, one of 27 reserves around the country, is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division.
Sapelo Island History
Sapelo, McIntosh County's barrier island off the coast, fronting on the Atlantic Ocean and bounded on its west by marshes and a network of tidal rivers and creeks, has a history as interesting and as diverse as that of the mainland.
In 1790, a syndicate of Frenchmen fleeing the Revolution in their homeland acquired ownership of Sapelo Island. These men embarked upon a series of events and misadventures which make for perhaps the most interesting, certainly the most intriguing, period in the history of the island.
Lewis Harrington, agent of the French owners of Sapelo, had in 1797, purchased the Chocolate tract on the island's north end, fronting on Mud River. (Chocolate, according to letters and deeds from 1797, was called that by its French owners. It was not, as local legend persists, a derivative of Le Chatelet corrupted by the slaves.)
Several years later, Danish sea captain Edward Swarbreck acquired Chocolate. It was he who constructed the tabby buildings, ca. 1819, the ruins of which are still standing at the site. About 1827, Chocolate was purchased by Dr. Charles Rogers, who had extensive agricultural operations there prior to his selling all of the north end to Thomas Spalding in 1843. Spalding presented the north end lands as a wedding gift to his youngest son, Randolph.
In 1801-02, Edward Swarbreck and Richard Leake began negotiations for the purchase of large tracts of land on Sapelo. Leake died in 1802, and his son-in-law, Thomas Spalding of St. Simons Island and 28 years old at the time, completed the purchase. With the help of a loan from British bankers, Spalding acquired 4,000 acres on Sapelo's south end.
Thus began a period in Sapelo's history when the island became a real income-producing plantation for the first, and only, time. Only during the period of Thomas Spalding's ownership, from 1802 until his death in 1851, has Sapelo been a profit to its owners.
Spalding was the son of James Spalding (d.1794) of St. Simons, being descended from the Spaldings of County Perth, Scotland, who held the Barony of Ashantilly. His mother, Margery McIntosh Spalding, was a descendant of the McIntosh clan which had settled Darien in 1736.
Thomas Spalding of Sapelo is a personage of great and enduring historical significance in the annals of McIntosh County. One of the most resourceful and innovative planters in all of the deep South, Spalding was held in high esteem and was considered, in his time, to be an agrarian genius whose methods were adopted by many other southern planters. Spalding served in the Georgia legislature, representing McIntosh County, for a number of years, and was also a U.S. congressman for a term until 1806, after which he returned to coastal Georgia for good to develop his properties on Sapelo, Creighton and Black islands.
In 1816, Spalding, for the sum of one dollar, sold five acres of land on Sapelo's south end on Doboy Sound, for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse. The Doboy Sound harbor entrance, converse to that of Sapelo Sound to the north, was a difficult one for mariners to approach. The offshore shoaling of Chimney Spit and other bars created problems for naviation. In 1819, the Federal government contracted with Winslow Lewis of Boston for the construction of a brick 65-foot lighthouse tower in round-form, topped by a 15-foot iron lantern. The lighthouse was completed in 1820, as was a wooden ranging beacon on the north shore of Wolf Island just across the Doboy Sound entrance from Sapelo light.
Howard Coffin and R. J. Reynolds on Sapelo
In 1911, Howard E. Coffin, Chief Engineer and Vice-President of the Hudson Motorcar Company of Detroit, visited Sapelo Island during a hunting trip. So taken was Coffin by the beauty and tranquility of Sapelo and the Georgia coast, that he began a series of transactions, completed in 1912, by which he purchased almost the entire island.
As hard depression times set in after the crash of 1929, Coffin and Jones, in order to keep their real estate and resort venture on Sea Island solvent, sold Sapelo to tobacco king Richard J. Reynolds. The depression ruined Coffin; the loss of his beloved wife from heart failure and his equally-beloved Sapelo within the space of two years, left him a broken man. He died in 1937. Over the years, the remarkable contributions of Howard Coffin to the growth and development of coastal Georgia have been more and more recognizable.
R. J. Reynolds owned Sapelo Island from 1934 until his death in 1964. He made further improvements to the main house by modernizing the electrical and communications system. Reynolds also engaged the noted muralist, Athos Menaboni, to render the beautiful mural scenes of tropical birds which still adorn the walls of the solarium and other parts of the house.
The greatest Sapelo legacy left by Reynolds was the creation of the Sapelo Island Research Foundation (1949), which led to the creation of the University of Georgia Marine Institute in the south end quandrangle complex of buildings.
In 1969, the widow of R. J. Reynolds (he was married four times) sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia, and thus was established the R. J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge on the northern half of the island. The southern portion was acquired by the state in 1976 and was designated a National Estuarine Sanctuary in the system administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources supervises the island which has been open for public day tours since 1977.
Phone Contacts and Location
Public tour reservations - 912-437-3224 Group tours - 912-485-2300 Group camping and Reynolds Mansion - 912-485-2299 () Location: Sapelo Island Visitors Center Route 1, Box 1500, Darien, GA 31305
Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Phone: 912-485-2251
- Education Office 912-485-2300 Location: P.O. Box 15,
Sapelo Island, GA 31327