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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Tybee Island: Fort Screven, North, and Mid-Beach Areas

Tybee Island: Fort Screven, North, and Mid-Beach Areas

[Fig. 9(4)] The Fort Screven and North Beach area offers fascinating military history, beautiful dunes, long beaches, a nice park, and an eclectic community of homes that is fun to observe on foot or bike. The natural dunes, with sea oats and other dune plants and animals, along with a view of Tybee Roads and Daufuskie and Hilton Head islands, make for a beautiful natural setting worth visiting. Also attracting attention are the mammoth container cargo ships, some almost as long as a 75-story building, plowing the waters of Savannah harbor. The Fort Screven installation gave Tybee a military character for more than 50 years, when 30 percent of Tybee Island's population consisted of military personnel. Today, the abandoned base is a National Historic District.

The north end of Tybee Island has been considered strategically important for hundreds of years. The first Europeans to visit the area were the Spanish, who explored the area 212 years before Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established the town of Savannah in 1733. The Spanish claimed the area from Port Royal, South Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida, as Spanish territory, naming it La Florida or Bimini. In 1526, only 34 years after Columbus, a lawyer named Lúcas Vázques de Ayllón sailed along the Georgia coast from the Antilles, looking to establish the first colony in the New World. The location of the first Spanish mission, San Miguel de Gualdape, is still unknown, but some archaeologists believe it was somewhere in McIntosh County near Sapelo, St. Catherines, or Blackbeard islands. Disease destroyed the mission, which was abandoned after only two months, leaving behind the bodies of Ayllón and 200 colonists. When Hernado DeSoto visited Tybee in 1540, he found a rosary and knife he believed belonged to the Ayllón explorers.

The first written description of Tybee was by another Spaniard, Captain Francis de Ecija, who described Tybee Roads at the mouth of the Savannah River as "The Bay of Shoals." When Oglethorpe began the colony of Savannah, he established the first "permanent" structure on the island, a 90-foot lighthouse designed by Noble Jones of Wormsloe (see Tybee Lighthouse, and Wormsloe) and built in the Fort Screven area north of Brumby Battery, it is believed. A stronghold named Fort Tybee was established near the lighthouse. During this period, the island was used as a hiding place for pirates such as Blackbeard, and today beachcombers patiently scan the beaches with metal detectors for buried treasure.

During the Revolutionary War, the French Fleet, the greatest gathering of foreign ships ever assembled in American waters, anchored off Tybee in support of American Patriots in their losing effort to take Savannah back from the British.

In 1808, recognizing its strategic value, the Federal government acquired jurisdiction in the Fort Screven area. Between 1812 and 1815, a lookout tower and fort known as a Martello tower was constructed by Isaiah Davenport of Savannah. Today, nothing is visible of the round structure, except what remains for archeologists to find. (In 1794, the British attacked a round stone tower at Martello Point, Corsica, and were greatly impressed with its defensive qualities. The British built more than 100 Martello towers on the south and east coasts of England between 1805 and 1812.) At various times in its history, the tower served as headquarters for the Georgia Telephone and Telegraph Company and was a post office. During the antebellum plantation era, the tower was a popular site for duels between South Carolina "Southern gentlemen" who used pistols to decide an issue. It also housed Union troops during their occupation of Tybee Island during the Civil War. It was serving as the Fort Screven post office when it burned in 1913. In 1914, the tower was blown up to clear the field of fire for Fort Screven's guns.

In 1819, President James Monroe traveled from Savannah to Tybee on the steamboat Savannah, which later became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.

The Fort Screven Historic District was home to a military base that was active from the Spanish-American War of 1898 through the end of World War II. Initially a fort for the Coastal Artillery, in 1929 it was taken over by the famous 8th Infantry. During the Great Depression in 1932, Fort Screven was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Catlett Marshall, who went on to command the entire U.S. military during World War II and author the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt war-torn Europe after the war and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. In 1940, the Coastal Artillery Corps took over again. During the years of World War II, a diving school was established to train engineers for underwater salvage operations and the repair of bomb-damaged ports. The United States Army Engineer Diving and Salvage School became the only school of its type operated by the Army in the United States. At the end of World War II the fort was declared surplus and sold to the City of Savannah Beach (now Tybee Island) for $200,000, which in turn auctioned it off to the public.

Today, Fort Screven is an unusual hodgepodge of historic military quarters, huge concrete military batteries, charming summer cottages, new condos, winding roads with Live Oaks, and beach and dunes. Less than 1 square mile, the area is fun to tour on a bike.

Touring Fort Screven National Historic District

[Fig. 10(1)] Located at the north end of the island facing the mouth of the Savannah River, the Fort Screven coastal defense combined the strength of poured concrete and granite with the defensive and camouflage qualities of earthen fortifications. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drew up plans for a fort on the northern end of Tybee in 1872, acquiring the land in 1875. Ten years later, President Grover Cleveland commissioned Secretary of War William C. Endicott to study U.S. coastal defenses. Endicott submitted a 400-page report that made recommendations for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Great Lakes coasts, and requested $97 million. But appropriations for construction were slow in coming, and it wasn't until 1896 that contracts were made for construction. At first the new fort was to be called Fort Tybee, then Camp Graham, but finally it was named Fort Screven in honor of Revolutionary War hero General James Screven, who was killed in Liberty County in action near Midway, Georgia in 1778.

Eventually in the Fort Screven area six batteries were built. Only one, Battery Garland, is open to tour. The others are on private property and must be viewed from the street. Some of these old concrete structures have been incorporated into private homes. Originally, they all would have been covered and camouflaged with sand and dune plants. Much of the sand was removed to help build US 80 connecting Tybee with the mainland. The batteries were executed along Endicott's design: many batteries, with few guns at each, spaced well apart and hidden from the enemy. The batteries were protected by 20-foot-thick walls and surrounded by 30 feet of earth.

Battery Garland, located across from Tybee Lighthouse, was built in 1899 and armed with 12-inch rifled guns (Tybee Museum is located inside). Battery Brumby, located next to Battery Garland, was built in 1898 and armed with four 8-inch guns on disappearing carriages, and was the only fortification finished in time for the Spanish-American War. These guns could fire 200-pound projectiles over 8 miles. Battery Fenwick, located next to Brumby on Taylor Street, was armed with two 12-inch guns. Battery Backus, located on Pulaski Street, was built in 1898 and had a 6-inch rapid-fire gun, then later was enlarged and equipped with 4.7-inch guns that originally were used at a fort on Wassaw Island. Battery Gantt, also on Pulaski Street, was completed in 1900, and was armed with two 3-inch rapid-fire guns in 1903, and is considered to be the most intact of the six batteries at Fort Screven. Battery Habersham, at Pulaski Street and Van Horn Drive, was armed in 1900 with eight 12-inch steel rifled mortars, the most devastating artillery at Fort Screven. These guns would fire 700-pound shells in a high arc from four or eight guns at a time, with the intention of landing shells on the deck of an enemy ship at once. One of these mortars is part of the Fort Screven logo at the Second Avenue Gate No. 2 entrance. (Another Fort Screven battery, Battery Hambright, is located at Fort Pulaski and open to the public. See Fort Pulaski).

There are many other structures in the historic district that are still in existence from the Fort Screven era. Some are private residences and apartments, and at least one is a bed and breakfast, the Fort Screven Inn. A large, long brick structure on Van Horn Street near Gate No. 2 Sentry Booth served as the base movie theater. Officer's Row houses on Officer's Row Street—many of which have been cut into smaller apartments—rest on top of an artificial berm, looking out to the Savannah River and Atlantic Ocean over a new development of luxury beach homes designed in a style to match. The impressive officer's homes were constructed of cypress and pine and raised above ground level on brick and granite piers.

Behind the Officer's Row houses is the former parade ground. Today is it Jaycee Park. This is the best park on the island, equipped with a jogging path, exercise stations, and a baseball field. Lieutenant Colonel George Catlett Marshall during his command here planted the moss-bearded crape myrtles. A small creek winds through the park, adding to its attractiveness, as do the Live Oaks, cedars, bayberries, and wax myrtles. Connecting the park with US 80 is palm-lined Campbell Street, which served as the main entrance to Fort Screven. The large building where Campbell Street meets the park was Gate No. 1 Sentry Booth for the fort.

Tybee Lighthouse and Tybee Island Museum

[Fig. 10(2)] Tybee Lighthouse is a national treasure that is a must-see for anyone visiting the island. The view from the observation deck—145 feet above the ground—is one of the best on the Georgia coast. To enjoy the view requires paying a modest admission to the Tybee Historical Society and climbing 178 black stairs. The admission fee also gets you into the Tybee Island Museum, located across the street from the lighthouse in Battery Garland at Fort Screven (see Fort Screven). More than 70,000 people visit the lighthouse each year, a testament to the romantic lure these old structures have on the public. The Tybee Historical Society recently received funding to launch long-needed restoration work on the lighthouse and cottages.

Originally used to guide British ships into Savannah, the lighthouse was also helpful to pirates. Blackbeard, who headquartered his crew in the Tybee area, is believed to have buried his treasure in the sands of Tybee Island. During the Civil War, the lighthouse was an important observation post. Today, it continues to guide ships from around the world safely into Savannah Harbor.

Tybee Lighthouse is the tallest (154 feet) and oldest (the lower portion is 225 years old) in Georgia and one of only 20 of the 850 lighthouses in the U.S. that still has its original support buildings. Tybee Light is one of the 450 still active lighthouses, and one of 122 that are open to the public. Most—339—use modern lighting devices. Tybee Lighthouse is one of only 13 that still uses its first order Fresnel (pronounced fre-nel) lens. Tybee Lighthouse was the second established in the colonies and is the second oldest in the U.S. using its original tower. The Tybee Island Light Station is nominated for National Landmark Status.

What you see today is actually two lighthouses: the third lighthouse (the bottom 60 feet completed in 1773) and the fourth lighthouse (the top 94 feet added to the original foundation in 1867). The octagonal structure is made of brick, with 12-foot-thick walls at the base tapering to 18 inches at the top.

Tybee's first lighthouse was a daymark—a lighthouse without a light—designed and constructed by Noble Jones of Wormsloe Plantation for Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe three years after Oglethorpe had founded the English colony of Savannah. This first structure, said to be the tallest structure in America at that time, was a 90-foot octagon made of brick and cedar piles. Storms and beach erosion (nothing new on Tybee) first threatened then carried away this first effort in August of 1741, forcing the commission of a second lighthouse.

The second lighthouse, finished in March of 1742, was a 90-foot stone and wood tower, with a 30-foot flagpole, used to communicate with passing ships. Oglethorpe said this structure was "much the best building of its kind in America." However, it too was built too close to the Atlantic Ocean and was threatened by forces of the sea.

In 1768, the third lighthouse was authorized to be built on the current site, much farther inland than the original two. Finished in 1773, it was built of Savannah grey brick, with interior wooden stairs, and stood 100 feet tall. It was also a daymark. When Georgia ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1790, the lighthouse and property came under the ownership and management of the United States Lighthouse Service, and lights were installed, using large candles and a large metal disc as an illuminate. Later, 16 whale-oil burning lamps were installed. George Washington personally reviewed the rebuilding of the woodwork of Tybee Lighthouse. When given the choice of "a hanging staircase for the sum of 160 pounds" or "a plain staircase for 110 pounds," the frugal and laconic Washington wrote the following: "Approved with the plain staircase. G. Washington."

In the 1800s, the lighthouse survived several powerful hurricanes, damage by Confederate soldiers, and even an earthquake.

In 1857, the lighthouse was improved by installing an 8-foot-tall, second order Fresnel lens, meaning the keeper had only to keep one lamp lit, making trips up the stairs with heavy oil a much easier task. During the Civil War, with Federal troops using Tybee Island, Confederate volunteers at Fort Pulaski grew concerned that the lighthouse would be an aid to Union gunboats. So one night a raiding party, under the command of Captain James B. Read, removed the lens, exploded a keg of gunpowder, and burned the stairs. Union troops quickly repaired the stairs, and used the lighthouse as an observation tower to plan and watch the successful bombardment of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island in spring of 1862.

In 1866, the fourth lighthouse was approved for Tybee made of brick and cast iron. Engineers used the lower 1773 portion as the foundation, added 94 feet to the top, and installed a first order Fresnel lens. The new light shone for the first time on October 1, 1867. The lighthouse required three keepers to maintain the light, each taking a three-hour shift and responsible for carrying 5 gallons of fuel to the top. In 1871, the lighthouse was damaged by a storm that pounded the coast, and in 1886 was cracked in several places by an earthquake that centered on Charleston, South Carolina.

Since the late 1800s, the lighthouse has seen relatively few changes. The 1867 lens rests in its original supports and visitors ascend the same cast iron staircase to marvel at the view. In 1933, electricity powering a 1,000-watt bulb replaced kerosene as the energy source for the light, and only one lightkeeper was needed. George Jackson, the last keeper, served in that capacity until he died in 1948 and the U.S. Coast Guard took over the operation and maintenance of the lighthouse. In 1987, the Coast Guard relocated to Cockspur Island and formed a joint partnership with the City of Tybee Island and Tybee Historical Society, which is responsible for maintenance and restoration of the six historical buildings on the 5-acre site delineated by a neat, white picket fence.

A $400,000 restoration of the lighthouse was undertaken in 1998 and 1999, changing the daymark to the 1916 to 1964 version of black, white, and black (the longest running version—the lighthouse has had five daymark changes), and completing other long-needed repairs. Tybee Island Historical Society Director Cullen Chambers, who previously restored lighthouses in Key West and St. Augustine, Forida, directed the work. The society was helped by the donation of $63,000 by Bill Younger of Younger & Associates and the Harbor Lights Collectors Society—the company that makes lighthouse collectibles. The Georgia Department of Transportation provided a $250,000 reimbursement grant through a federal I.S.T.E.A. program. The Tybee Island Historical Society also plans to restore three of the cottages to their circa-1900 appearance.

A 1939 garage building has been transformed into an excellent gift shop and admission building. Nearby, there is a large bell stamped with U.S.L.H.S., which stands for United States Lighthouse Society. The bell is stamped with the year 1938, which is the year before the Society was reorganized into the U.S. Coast Guard. The bell was used to call volunteers during emergencies, such as when a ship ran aground or was stuck on a sand bar.

Tybee Island Museum

[Fig. 10(3)] The eclectic Tybee Island Museum has the advantage of being in a historic structure of Battery Garland. You can tour the museum and view its Indian, gun, doll, Civil War, Johnny Mercer, and Fort Screven exhibits. A bell is on display that once was used on a Georgia Railroad steam locomotive and later summoned schoolchildren to Tybee Elementary. For the naturalist, there are collections of shells and bones of marine animals. The museum itself is interesting to walk through and imagine what military duty was like inside these concrete batteries. Walking through the museum requires the ability to climb stairs so is inappropriate for strollers or wheelchairs. An observation deck on top of the battery offers a good view of Tybee Roads and South Carolina's barrier islands. A submarine periscope is fun for children. The museum has a gift shop.

Outside in the parking lot is an unusual monument to Second Lieutenant Henry Sims Morgan, who died in an act of heroism. On August 31, 1898, during a terrible hurricane, the Italian Bark Noe wrecked in Tybee Roads, putting the crew in jeopardy. The 24-year-old Morgan, who was in charge of the fortification work at Fort Screven, and a crew of five volunteers attempted to rescue the imperiled crew. Morgan and one volunteer lost their lives in the attempt. In 1903, classmates dedicated a plaque to Morgan's memory at West Point. In 1923 at Fort Screven, a duplicate was mounted on a large granite stone, which was moved to Fort Pulaski when Fort Screven was decommissioned but later returned to this spot in 1994.

Recreation on Tybee Island's Fort Screven, North and Mid-Beach Areas

On the northern side of the Battery Garland and Brumby is a large parking lot and boardwalk access over the dunes to the North Beach area of Tybee Island. For the naturalist, this is a good area to examine dune formation processes. Gulls and pelicans are common out on the flats. Some locals say the North Beach area has the best shelling, but this could be because it is not as heavily used. Fishermen try their skill casting off into the river currents of the sound. Bikers can enjoy a relaxing trip through Fort Screven's funky neighborhoods, as they ride along narrow roads lined with wax myrtle, palms, and Live Oaks and view the former military base's hulking concrete batteries, eclectic homes, and converted military buildings.

Lodging on Tybee Island's Fort Screven, North, and Mid-Beach Areas

Fort Screven Inn. 24 Van Horne, Fort Screven Historic District. If you want a more peaceful stay on Tybee, consider the Fort Screven Inn, a circa-1900 house that housed military officers serving Fort Screven. This is an excellent location for exploring the historic Fort Screven and North Beach area and innkeeper Tess Jones knows how to make her guests feel at home. Air-conditioned suites with private baths. Moderate. (912) 786-9255.

The Marsh Hen B&B. 702 Butler Avenue, Tybee Island. This small B&B is located on 7th Street in the residential Mid-Beach area. Two bedrooms with private baths are available and the B&B is located near the beach. Moderate. (912) 786-0378.

Econo Lodge Beachside. 404 Butler Avenue, Tybee Island. One of the first motels you see when you reach the Tybee beaches after a big right turn on US 80 is the Econo Lodge, which is located on beach. The 1970 motel has been remodeled to gear it more for families as opposed to the one-night party crowd. Rooms have porches and the second-floor balconies have ocean views. Owners have added an excellent restaurant, The Grill Beachside, plus a bar and grill overlooking the beach. A great place to drink a margarita while listening to a local Jimmy Buffett. With 60 remodeled rooms, a swimming pool, beach volleyball, and a playground for children, there's plenty for the family to explore. It's located across the street from Tybee's public park where tennis and basketball courts, along with picnic shelters and grills can be found. Econo Lodge also rents five nice beachfront condos, with elevators for the handicapped, just steps away. Moderate. (800) 786-0770. Restaurant: (912) 786-4745.

Condo and Home Rentals. Contact the Tybee Island Visitors Center for Tybee Island rentals. (800) 868-2322. Other management companies offering rentals across the island include Tybee Island Rentals, (800) 476-0807; Tybee Beach Rentals, (800) 755-8562; and Beachside Realty, (800) 786-0770.

Restaurants on Tybee Island's Fort Screven, North and Mid-Beach, Chimney Creek, and Lazaretto Creek Areas

North Beach Grill. 41A Meddin Drive, Fort Screven Historic District. Wedged between batteries Brumby and Garland at Fort Screven, is a popular restaurant with a coastal flair. Here you find a slightly more upscale crowd drinking wine and eating jerk chicken with plastic forks out of wax-paper lined baskets. The food is Caribbean-coastal, sometimes spicy, and usually very good. The asparagus-blue crab appetizer is delicious. Fresh fish dishes are worth your money. Indoor and outdoor seating. Open for lunch and dinner, daily except Tuesday. Moderate. (912) 786-9003.

MacElwee's Seafood Restaurant. 101 Lovell Avenue, Tybee Island. Tybee's oldest seafood restaurant (more than 15 years) is a cut above the usual family seafood places you find at the beach. Very good service. Besides fresh fish dinners, the stuffed oysters are very good as well as the hand-cut black angus steaks. Takeout is available. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Moderate. (912) 786-4259.

The Crab Shack. 40 Estill Hammock, Chimney Creek. In the 1930s it was a fish camp, then it was a marina, then a bar, then a seafood restaurant, then a larger seafood restaurant. If you want to go "low country," this is the best place to do it. Crack blue crab or slurp raw oysters under Live Oaks while watching someone slide their boat into the marsh or a manatee swim by. Or observe a great blue heron hunting for food in the salt marsh so close you can spit on it. This is the kind of restaurant that you could only find on the Georgia coast. The owner, Jack Flanigan, lives on the property in a trailer near the parking lot. To reach the restaurant, go west on US 80 off of Tybee Island, turn left at Chimney Creek (before Lazaretto Creek), and follow the signs. Indoor and outdoor seating. Bar. Open for lunch and dinner. Moderate. (912) 786-9857.

Bubba Gumbo's and Cafe Loco. 1 Old Tybee Road. These two restaurants are located roughly next to one another in the salt marsh facing west on Lazaretto Creek. This is a good place to watch the sun go down while you eat some of freshest shrimp you've ever tasted. Bubba Gumbo's, a Yankee's idea of a good name for a seafood restaurant, serves only shrimp recently brought from the docks located nearby. Believe it or not, eating fresh Georgia shrimp at a Georgia coastal restaurant is rarer than you might think. It's cheaper to sell imported shrimp than Georgia shrimp, and many Fried Captain Platter Restaurants do just that. The Bubba's Platter, consisting of fresh shrimp, oysters, and catfish dipped in beer batter, is excellent. Cafe Loco, with more of a night life, is much the same in the food department. Flip a coin. Indoor and outdoor seating. Lunch and dinner. Moderate. Bubba Gumbo's: (912) 786-9500. Café Loco: (912) 786-7810.

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