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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



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Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Tybee Island

Tybee Island

[Fig. 10] Tybee Island, the most densely developed barrier island on the Georgia coast, consequently lacks most of the natural communities found on Georgia's other barrier islands because of past use and poorly planned development. Here you have renourished beach on the eastern side, dunes with sea oats and pioneer plants at the northern and middle beach areas, and salt marsh on the Back River.

That's not to say Tybee Island doesn't have its own unique appeal. The island is a good place to stay to walk the beach, bird watch, go fishing, ride a bike, and take easy day trips to nearby attractions, including the city of Savannah. Tybee is also loaded with fascinating characters, excellent fishing, gorgeous views, and cold mixed drinks. If Ernest Hemingway were alive today, he might be living and writing books on Tybee.

One reason Tybee Island is significant is that it is one of only four of Georgia's 15 major barrier islands that can reached by car, which has been true since 1923. DOT plans call for making four lanes of US 80, the transportation artery linking Tybee and Savannah, which means even more cars, visitors, and development are in the future of this small island.

Tybee is Georgia's northernmost and 11th-largest barrier island, measuring approximately 2.5 miles long by 0.75 mile wide. The Holocene island consists of 3,100 acres, of which 1,500 acres are uplands. Nearly 3.5 miles of beach runs roughly north and south before curving toward Savannah at the north end, where it reaches the Savannah River. Across the river and Tybee Roads (the busy shipping mouth of the river) lies South Carolina and Daufuskie and Hilton Head islands. Tybee Island has a permanent resident population of 3,000, which swells on summer weekends to 30,000.

Early in Georgia's history, Tybee Island was recognized as a strategic piece of land to protect the port of Savannah. At different periods of Georgia and U.S. history, lighthouses were erected on the northern end to guide ships and coastal forts were built and manned to protect the coast (see Tybee Lighthouse, and Fort Screven). The last lighthouse is still in use, and the last military installation called Fort Screven—an active base from 1(912) 897 to 1945—is now a national historic district, with some of the fort's emplacements and structures used as homes, garages, apartments, and a museum.

It is hard to walk far on Tybee Island without making a friend of a local, who will regale you with what I call "True Tybee Tales." Some locals relish calling their town the "Redneck Riviera" or "Truckstop by the Sea," but Tybee's local color is actually more diverse than these monikers suggest. Very rich and very poor families, surfers and soldiers, old timers and babies, straights and gays, Yankees and rednecks, environmentalists and litterbugs, blacks and whites, the beautiful and not-so-beautiful, all democratically share Tybee's beaches in close quarters without seeming to notice one another. You quickly realize that you are not strolling the exclusive beach at Sea Island. This is not to say that there's perfect harmony among the locals. Islanders pack the seats at city council meetings, which are considered "must-see" entertainment. Epic political battles are waged over stop signs, barking dogs, and other matters of national significance.

Those looking for controlled-access communities, plush golf courses, and color-coordinated housing and residents need to look elsewhere because Tybee proudly embraces what locals call "Tybee Tacky." Take a stroll through the local legend department store bouillabaisse that is T.S. Chu's and I guarantee you won't be confused that you are in Neiman Marcus. One popular establishment, Earl's, remains prepared for any holiday by leaving all its decorations—Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—on display just in case. Status on Tybee goes to the person who has the most rustproof rims on his or her beach bicycle. Not that there isn't money on the island. You just can't tell by the locals' footwear, which is more frequently bare feet than Bruno Maglis.

Tybee Island development plan, March, 1890. Click for a larger version (370.61 k), opens new window.No one's absolutely certain where the name "Tybee" originated. In the Yuchi Indian language, tybee means "salt." Some believe the name came from a Choctaw chief named Iti ubi, which means "wood killer." Some believe the name came from the corruption of the word "tabby," a oystershell-limestone mix that was used as a construction material by early colonists on the Georgia coast. Tybee, sometimes spelled Tiby on early maps, was first incorporated in 1887 as the town of Ocean City, and was known as Savannah Beach during its heyday as a resort for the city of Savannah. Today, it is incorporated as the town of Tybee.

Tybee has been the playground of Savannah's wealthier citizens for more than a century, and today the island's many beautiful homes with docks leading out to expensive watercraft testify to the fact that its popularity endures.

When the island became more accessible in the mid-1800s with the development of the steamboat, the general public started coming more often. Resort hotels, such as the Bolton Hotel and Ocean House, were established, and lots were sold for $200, plus $150–$200 for a frame house. Tybee's development as a resort picked up more steam after the Civil War, when public transportation to the island improved with the establishment of a rail link with Savannah in 1887. The three-hour steamboat journey was reduced to an hour train ride, if the train didn't break down. By the Roaring Twenties, more people called Tybee home, and thousands of visitors would come to the island in the summer.

The Tybee Island pier and beach were popular destinations in the 1930s.Photos reveal that beach outings were quite a different sartorial event in the early 1900s. Men wore suit coats and long pants with ties and bowler hats while women wore fancy hats, fine long dresses, and high-heeled shoes—as dressed up as any Sunday church gathering today—as they walked on the beach.

Tybee was dominated by a cottage culture, with more than 400 summer residences built on the island. A photograph hanging in City Hall (a duplicate is also in the Tybee Museum) shows a row of cottages facing the beach behind a set of dunes from 11th Street to 5th Street, or the mid-beach area. These family cottages had wrap-around sleeping porches to take full advantage of cooling ocean breezes at night. The builders of these cottages wisely set them back behind the second dunes, looking for protection from storms. A sidewalk ran in front of these cottages, some of which featured grand wooden staircases centrally located and oriented toward the beach.

The fact that these early homeowners built back from the beach affected development patterns to come because the property in front of their houses became valuable. Since the 1960s and 1970s, ownership of many of these cottages has turned over from one generation to the next, with second generation family or developers developing four or five homes directly in front of these charming cottages.

As it usually happens with historic properties, some have fallen into neglect, others have been remodeled, obliterating their historic character with stucco and frosted windows, and others have been torn down to make way for half-a-million dollar homes. But some cottages retain their elegant beach character and a few of the residents have successfully resisted upgrading their free, natural cooling systems for air conditioning.

The main hub of social activity on Tybee Island was the Tybrisa Pavilion and the old and new Tybee Hotels (the first one burned), popular gathering sites at the south end of the beach. When the palm-lined Tybee highway was opened on June 21, 1923, linking Tybee with Thunderbolt, a new era was ushered in. In the 1920s and 1930s, Tybee Island was one of the busiest seaside resorts in the Southeast.

Butler Avenue at one time had a train running down the middle of it, with a turntable rail yard at the end near 17th Street. The steam engine would drop its passenger cars, be turned around, then push the passengers back to Savannah. The Tybee Highway replaced the train tracks, and Butler became a wide, palm-lined, divided road. But the palms were cut down to make way for parking spaces on either side of the street, which added to municipal coffers but took away from the attractiveness of the avenue.

With the boom in population and recreation coming to all of America's shorelines, prosperity in the form of real estate development has had its effect on working class residents. Locals will quickly tell you a story of how a house and lot purchased for $15,000 only 20 years ago sold last week for over $300,000. One island native, Michael Bart, says Tybee Island has changed more in the last 10 years than the previous 50, with property taxes on a steady march upward. Because of the desirability of the beach, developers are staying busy with redevelopment on the island, tearing down older structures and filling in with new. Today, the sound of hammers and saws competes with the cries of seagulls as Tybee Island continues to change.

The Tybee Visitor Center and TAG Shop is found at US 80 and Campbell Avenue on the right as you approach Tybee's beaches. This is a good place to stop and inquire about lodging and events on the island, shop in the knick-knacky TAG Shop (Tybee Antiques and Gifts) that features local arts and antiques, buy some ice cream or baked goods, or purchase some fresh vegetables at a small farmers' market. It is open 7 days a week, 9–5. Phone (800) 868-2322 or (912) 786-5444.

Tybee Island's Natural Features

Ecologically, Tybee Island would be a great place to earn a Ph. D. on the effects of development to a barrier island. Barrier islands are very impermanent geological entities. The sand is always on the move, leaving to go somewhere else or arriving from somewhere else. Tybee Island is no different and the struggles the island has gone through to literally hold its ground are instructive for all barrier island communities.

Despite its small size and overdevelopment, Tybee Island surprisingly still has threatened loggerhead sea turtles nesting on its beaches—as many or more than St. Simons Island, another developed island. In 1998, three brave turtles nested on Tybee Island compared with a solitary individual on St. Simons Island. Not that this is anything to brag about, when considering historic numbers that probably reached the several hundreds before Europeans came to the coast. (Cumberland and Little Cumberland islands lead the Georgia coast with a combined 10-year average of 242 nests a year.)

Tybee Island's natural beach sand is not as fine and white as that of the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico because of Tybee Island's high organic mix and the quantity of rough dark granite in its sand. Beach sand on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts generally consists of three components: fine minerals, crushed seashells (calcium carbonate), and detritus from other dead organisms, including marine plants and animals. Low wave energy on the Georgia coast prevents heavy deposits of calcium carbonate and the sand grains found on the beach are rougher, due to a lack of rounding from wave energy.

The higher the quartz content, the finer and whiter the beach sand, such as you find near Grayton Beach, Florida. When you hear the sand squeak under your feet, that's the angular, translucent crystal of quartz rubbing together. This quartz has been brought down to the beach from the Appalachians. In essence, you are walking on the Blue Ridge Mountains when you are walking on a southeastern Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico beach. Some beaches, such as ones near St. Augustine and in the Bahamas, have a high calcium carbonate component and when viewed with a hand lens will be revealed as crushed sea shells.

Sand on a barrier island beach does not stay in one place for long. Wind, rivers, tides, and currents all play a role in growing, shaping, and destroying barrier islands. Tybee's mineral components have, over the millennia, come from the Appalachian Mountains via the Savannah River drainage. A mix of quartz and granite gives the beach a gray color. The black streaks are pulverized granite, washed down from the mountains.

The Savannah River has historically been a contributor to Tybee's beaches. But at least three major impoundments or dams trap sediments upstream from Tybee Island, keeping natural sediments from adding to the shoreline. Also, a deep channel cut, or trench, is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Savannah River Harbor, allowing large commercial freighters access to the Port of Savannah. This 42-foot-deep trench, which left to natural forces is 24 feet deep, traps southward-moving sands from South Carolina, preventing the natural renourishment that sustains and helps create the beaches. As the trench fills, dredging operations collect the sediments and move them to official Savannah Harbor Ocean Dredge Material Disposal Sites (ODMDS). The sediments, totaling 7 million cubic yards a year, are not all beach compatible. Some of them are, however, which leads some people to argue that the sandy component should be deposited on Tybee.

The bottom line is that Tybee Island, like many barrier islands in the U.S., has been losing beach, especially at the northeast end, as prevailing currents, tides, and winds have moved sand southward from the island. Take a walk north on the beach at high tide from the Tybee Pier and you will run into trouble as you pass Third Street on your left: you run out of beach. Over the years, officials have built more than 100 beach-trapping structures of different degrees of effectiveness in an ongoing effort to stop the island from losing its beach. In 1941, a sea wall was constructed along the length of Tybee on the eastern side from the north to the south end.

To help the situation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers periodically pumps sand from offshore "borrow" sites and transports it to eroding areas, a stopgap measure that costs usually a million dollars a square mile. Local governments pay approximately 5 percent, state and county taxpayers pitch in about 30 percent, and the federal government pays the rest. The Tybee beaches have been renourished several times. In 1975–1976, with the northeastern end in trouble from erosion not unlike it is today, a major renourishment project was launched to build up 3 miles of beach with sand from nearby shoals. Today, another round of renourishment is in the works, possibly from materials dredged from the Savannah River as it is deepened.

Beach renourishment changes the mix and look of the beach. Occasionally, beachcombers can find hardened clay balls washed up on the beach. These were created when renourishment operations pumped clay up on the beach, and waves rolled it into small, rounded, bricklike aggregate stones. Beach renourishment has a negative effect on burrowing sea life in the littoral zone, which in effect is buried alive when sand is pumped up on the beach.

Older strategies that employed sea jetties or groins to hold sand in place prove eventually to be disastrous. These structures, which run perpendicular to the shore, interrupt the normal littoral drift of sand and sediments, essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, depriving down-coast areas of natural replenishment and causing erosion. This damming of the natural flow of the river of sand eventually causes severe erosion either in front or behind the jetty. Sea walls, which run parallel to the shore, protect structures directly behind them, but deflect and increase wave energy that eventually undercuts the structures and causes erosion. On the southern end of Tybee, beyond the seawall, there used to be 15-foot high dunes. After the renourishment project, the dunes washed away for 30 feet behind the seawall. Controlling barrier islands is unpredictable and some beaches grow despite of these structures.

As the sand builds up, pioneering plants that can tolerate salt spray, exposure to the sun, and tenuous soil conditions start to colonize an area. They trap blowing sand and eventually create a dune. As the dune stabilizes, a greater diversity of plants develops, with some plants on the exposed top of the dune (sea oats) and others in the more protected, moister bottom. On Tybee Island, a young Holocene island (4,000–5,000 years old) the best natural dunes are found on the North Beach area and in the Mid-Beach area around 10th Street.

In the long run, barrier island beach-holding strategies can only have a temporary effect. Statistically, the Georgia coast should experience six major hurricanes a century. In the 1900s, Georgia has been lucky and not experienced even one, making homeowners and developers somewhat overconfident about their real estate investments. In the nineteenth century, the Georgia coast was hit by six major hurricanes. The most destructive was the hurricane of Aug. 27, 1881, which completely submerged Tybee Island under a 20-foot storm surge, destroying most of the island. Ominously, most experts believe it is only a matter of time before another one lands on the coast.

Bird-watching on Tybee Island

The North Beach area has traditionally seen the greatest variety of species, but new development has decreased sightings of shy species. Regardless, the north end is a stop on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail established by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Seen at the north end, as well as on the rest of Tybee's beaches, have been Wilson's plovers in the summer, and during winter red knots, pectoral sandpipers; royal, sooty, Caspian, Sandwich, and gull-billed terns; black skimmers, dunlins, and piping and semipalmated plovers. Occasionally seen in summer flitting through tree canopies on the northern end are painted buntings and yellow-billed cuckoos, and in winter various warblers are uncommon visitors, including the orange-crowned. Common on the beach are ring-billed gulls, brown pelicans, black skimmers, and boat-tailed grackles. During the winter, migrating species are seen in the air heading south in their V-shaped formations. Rock jetties attract ruddy turnstones and purple sandpipers. The interior creeks on the western side are home to the American oystercatcher, which feasts on the exposed oyster beds at low tide. Dunlins and black-bellied plovers are seen here as well.

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