Destination - St. Marys, Georgia - Soundings Online

Destination - St. Marys, Georgia

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This ‘No. 1 Small Boom Town’ has plenty to offer transient boaters

What draws an increasing number of cruisers to St. Marys, tucked away in the southeast corner of Georgia on the St. Marys River?

“Friendly people, a beautiful downtown waterfront park and the slow pace,” says Capt. Frank Ayd III, 59, who skippers the 97-foot custom Queenship, Carpe Diem. “It’s a good place to relax, and you can walk to everything.”

 For the last three years he’s visited St. Marys for a month in the fall and a month in the spring. “No matter how bad the weather is outside, the [St. Marys] inlet is easy to run. It’s the best on the East Coast,” he says. (Nuclear submarines from the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base five miles up the Intracoastal Waterway also use the inlet.) Ayd ties up at Lang’s Marina East, but many boaters drop the hook in the extensive anchorage across the channel and dinghy in to the city’s free-floating dock.

 

Chartered in 1787, St. Marys nestles beneath moss-draped live oaks two miles from the Intracoastal Waterway. The city retains its centuries-old quiet because it’s at the proverbial end of the road. Locals, day trippers and guests at the 19th-century pastel-painted bed-and-breakfast inns walk or bicycle around town to the riverfront shops and restaurants, along the new Marsh Walk, to Oak Grove Cemetery where the graves of early settlers date to 1801, and to HowardGilmanWaterfrontPark, named for the founder of the Gilman Paper Co. that revived St. Marys’ depressed economy in the 1940s. Usually river-watchers fill the park’s swinging benches, with children’s laughter enlivening the playground and the aroma of barbecues rising from the picnic area.

A flurry of activity surrounds the daily departures and arrivals of the National Park Service Cumberland Island ferries, but things soon slip back into relaxed mode. For many folks, a major event is strolling to the city’s waterfront pavilion to watch the sun set over the river. Yet this laid-back small town hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since 1996 when Money Magazine named St. Marys its No. 1 Small Boom Town, the population has risen from 5,000 to 13,500.

“The town is changing, and we’ve had to go along because we needed it,” says St. Marys native and marina patriarch Cal Lang. Lang recalls shrimping’s heyday in the mid-1900s, when workers at his packing plant peeled and froze the catch from his fleet of shrimpers. (That plant is now Lang’s Restaurant and Retail Fish Market, the place for local rock shrimp.) Shrimp boats tie up at Lang’s Marina East, but he’s allocating more dockage to visiting yachts. Lang’s West is exclusively for recreational boats.

Some cruisers, including Mike Derivan, sail into town and never leave. After his voyage from Ohio a few years ago, “I sold [my boat] Sweet Dreams, fell in love and moved ashore. The rest’s history,” he says.

History is St. Marys’ strong suit, with its National Historic District of 1800s buildings near the waterfront. The city’s crown jewel is Orange Hall, an 1840s Greek Revival mansion built for the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, one of four 19th-century churches in St. Marys. The three-story, 8,000-square-foot Orange Hall, renovated and furnished with period antiques, is open for daily tours (www.orangehall.org).

Shopping, antiquing and fine dining establishments occupy many Victorian homes built when St. Marys was a major seaport and prosperous port of entry. Shops, eateries and pubs (some with evening entertainment) also occupy 1920s buildings along the riverfront. Other antique shops and the library (with free Internet access) are a few blocks up Osborne Street. You can pick up nautical charts at Once Upon a Bookseller (www.onceuponabookseller.com), and replenish your book bag at Read ’em Again Bookstore. The SubmarineMuseum showcases the U.S. Navy’s “Silent Service” (see accompanying story).

The visitors’ center, a short stroll up Osborne Street, offers a free introductory video, brochures and a walking map. Throughout the Historic District, signs and a “Braille trail” mark the major sites. In season, narrated Guale Trolley tours, trams, horse-drawn carriages and rental pedal cars transport tourists around. A sightseeing train runs between Kingsland and St. Marys. You also can rent bicycles and kayaks.

Across the street from the ferry dock, where you can hop on the ferry to CumberlandIsland, is the 1916 Riverview Hotel and its Seagle’s Saloon. John D. Rockefeller Sr. was a guest at the Riverview when Jerry Brandon’s great-aunts ran the place. For more than 20 years Brandon and his wife, Gaila — the present owners — have run the Riverview as a cruisers’ home away from home.

“We love doing things with boaters,” says Gaila Brandon. “We’ve been involved with Ocean Classroom since our son went through the program years ago. [Its schooners] Westward, Spirit of Massachusetts and Harvey Gamage stop here every year. Their crews and students are like family.” Cruising boaters quickly join that family, gathering at Seagle’s and attending the annual Halloween Party and increasingly popular Boaters’ Potluck Thanksgiving Dinner.

The National Park Service Museum gives a glimpse of Cumberland Island National Seashore’s wild horses and the pristine marsh, maritime forest, dune and beach ecosystem of Georgia’s southernmost barrier island. Displays illustrate the lavish winter lifestyle enjoyed by the Carnegie family, who owned nine mansions and most of CumberlandIsland around the turn of the 20th century. One mansion on the island, Plum Orchard, is open for tours. Several remain privately owned. The museum’s exhibits also document the presence of pre-Columbian Native Americans, 16th-century Spanish missionaries, antebellum plantations, freed slaves, colonial British soldiers and Victorian visitors.

Only 300 people per day can visit CumberlandIsland, so you’ll find no crowds along the undeveloped seven-mile ocean beach while hiking or exploring the island’s ruins. Many boaters take the Park Service ferry, but you can take your own boat to the island. Sea Camp, Dungeness and Plum Orchard docks have limited space for daytime tie-ups. Or you can anchor out and dinghy ashore, tying up on shore near one of the docks.

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Honoring those in the ‘silent service’

If you happen to see one of those sleek nuclear subs in the waterway between St.MarysInlet and the nearby Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, you can learn about them and their predecessors at the St. Marys Submarine Museum.

It’s one of only five submarine museums in the United States, and historical exhibits occupy three levels in the 1911 former movie theater on the downtown waterfront. The self-guided tour begins with early submarine designs, including the 1775 USS Turtle, Robert Fulton’s 1797 USS Nautilus, the 1864 CSS Hunley (the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat), an 1876 pedal-powered Russian sub, and other forerunners of the modern submarine Navy. Exhibits also focus on World War II diesel subs and their patrols. Fifty-two U.S. subs were lost in World War II, and displays memorialize those submariners who earned the Medal of Honor in that war, as well as all subs commissioned for the fighting.

Museum manager John Crouse, who served on WW II West Pac Fast Attack submarines, hopes to obtain a command plaque from each submarine, sub tender and sub rescue vessel for the museum’s wall display. Donations have left few spots vacant.

On the upper level, American and foreign nuclear submarines are represented by models, memorabilia and artifacts, many from the USS James K. Polk nuclear ballistic missile sub (SSBN-645). A slide show depicts the building of the USS George Bancroft (SSBN-643).

Visitors can operate a periscope, view a sonar console and watch submarine movies. The library includes works of fiction about the so-called “Silent Service,” from “Run Silent, Run Deep” to “The Hunt for Red October.”

Any visitor can peruse histories of most submarines and their support commands, and researchers can obtain permission to access another 16 file cabinets of historical documents. Crouse and volunteers are in the process of cataloging and installing some 280 books, 300 plaques, 1,000-plus photos, 30 models, nine file cabinets and 12 display cases of material from Ben Bastura of Middletown, Conn. Bastura, who died in 2003, had been collecting submarine history and artifacts since the 1950s, and the contents of his Submarine Library and Museum now are housed at St. Marys.

“We have the largest submarine museum in the Southeast,” says Crouse. “But we’re always seeking additional material and oral histories from submariners and their families.”

“Commissioned” in 1996, the museum this year welcomed visitor No. 100,000, who happened to be the father of a Fast Attack submarine sailor who was on leave visiting his parents.

For more information, call (912) 882-2782, or visit www.stmaryssubmuseum.com.

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If you decide to go

St. Marys, Ga., is about two miles from the Intracoastal Waterway, up the St. Marys River, which separates Georgia from Florida. The approaches — the ICW or St.MarysInlet and the St. Marys River channel — are well-marked. “You couldn’t ask for a better [ocean] entrance,” says Cal Lang, marina owner and St. Marys native. The channel also handles sub-

marine traffic from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, five miles north of the river mouth. Locals warn that the lighted stone entrance jetties become awash at half tide. Tides range from 5 to 6 feet.

Lang’s Marina, (912) 882-6410, has docks both east and west of downtown HowardGilmanWaterfrontPark and accommodates boats to 200 feet in depths of 14 feet or more for $1 a foot per night, plus electricity. Both locations have showers, heads and pumpout. Fuel is available on the east docks, where the shrimp boat fleet ties up.

Banking, some provisions and lodging are downtown within walking distance, and box stores and major chains line Route 40 near Interstate 95, about five miles northwest. Jacksonville (Fla.) InternationalAirport is about 25 miles south. You can arrange for taxis and rental cars.

“The 17 wonderful golf courses in the area are a big attraction for my owner,” says Capt. Frank Ayd III, who skippers a 97-foot custom Queenship.

The large, deep anchorage off Lang’s Marina West attracts many transient boaters, who dinghy to the city’s free floating dock at GilmanPark. Lang says the anchorage is best in the fall and winter months, when the prevailing winds are northerly. “It can be bumpy in south and southeasterlies.”

Most boaters migrate through in fall and spring. Lang says some southbound snowbirds leave their boats in St. Marys for the Christmas holidays, then continue south in January. March and April are the busiest months on CumberlandIsland.

NOAA chart 11489, St.SimonsSound to TolomatoRiver, ICW, covers St. Marys and approaches.

Information

• St. Marys Tourism Council, (800) 868-8687, www.stmaryswelcome.com.

• Cumberland Island National Seashore, (888) 817-3421, www.nps.gov/cuis.

Events

• Feb. 25: Mardi Gras Festival, with arts, crafts, entertainment and Mardi Gras Parade, downtown, (800) 868-8687.

• July 4: Independence Day Celebration, (800) 868-8687.

• Oct. 7: Rock Shrimp Festival, (800) 868-8687.

• Nov. 2-4: National Memorial Service for World War II Submarine Vets, (800) 868-8687.

• Nov. 7: Downtown Merchants Christmas Open House, (800) 868-8687.

• Nov. 28: White Lighting ceremony, (800) 868-8687.

• Dec. 9: Historic Candlelight Tour of Homes, (800) 868-8687.