Cumberland Island National Seashore | DUNGENESS MANSION

Dungeness Mansion at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Dungeness Mansion at Cumberland Island National Seashore

The fourth stop on the Cell Phone Audio Tour of the Dungeness historical area is at the main entrance gate to what remains of the Carnegie’s Dungeness mansion. It is a half-mile walk to this point from the Dungeness dock. Visitors are welcome to view the ruins and can walk around the entire house, but entry is barred.

Dungeness is the name originally given to a mansion that was built by Phineas Miller and his wife Catherine, the widow of American Revolution hero General Nathanael Greene. Greene came to the island in 1783 after acquiring 11,000 acres in exchange for money owed to him. He had another successful plantation in Savannah, Georgia, called Mulberry Grove; Phineas Miller was the manager. When Greene died in 1786, Catherine, with the help of Miller—who she married in 1796—continued to run the two plantations until things went bad financially around 1798. Forced to sell Mulberry Grove, the Millers took up residence at the plantation on Cumberland Island.

Nathanael Greene began to build a small home on the island before his death, and Catherine and Phineas expanded it into a four-story mansion, naming it Dungeness. Miller died in 1803 and Catherine lived out her life on the plantation, farming Sea Island cotton, rice, indigo, olives, and oranges. When she died in 1814, the home passed to her daughter, Louisa Shaw, who ran the plantation until her death in 1831. Dungeness remained in use until burning in 1866, though its ruins were left standing and became a tourist attraction for those who stopped on the island while traveling to Florida for the winter by boat.

Original Dungeness mansion

Original Dungeness mansion

The Dungeness property (1,891 acres) would go on to be owned by William Davis, first cousin to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and it is Davis who eventually sold the land to Thomas and Lucy Carnegie in 1881 (Thomas is the brother of Andrew Carnegie). In 1886, Carnegie and his business partner, Leander Morris, purchased the 8,240-acre Stafford Plantation from the descendants of William Stafford, who during the early- to mid-1800s was the largest and wealthiest landholder on Cumberland Island. After Thomas’s death in 1886, only two years after he permanently moved to Cumberland Island, Lucy bought out Morris. Over the years she would go on to purchase about 90% of the island.

The Carnegies tore down the ruins of the Miller’s Dungeness and built a modest home on the site, also naming it Dungeness. Construction began in 1884 and was completed in 1885, one year before Thomas’s death. Lucy decided to remain on the island, and it is here that she raised her nine children (keep in mind the Cumberland Island was a fall through spring residence only and that the family went back to Pittsburgh for the summer). Over time, many of her children would have their own mansions on the island. Beginning in 1890, she expanded the original house into a 37,000 square foot mansion with more than fifty rooms. Construction of some sort went on until 1905.

Entrance to Dungeness Mansion

Entrance to Dungeness Mansion

View from the front gate of Dungeness Mansion on Cumberland Island

View from the front gate of Dungeness Mansion on Cumberland Island

Lucy died in 1916, and not wanting to burden her children with deciding what to do with the island property, her will forbade any of them from selling the land unless all agreed (the land could be sold by the children’s heirs once all of them were dead). Of her nine children, eight were still alive; Coleman had died five years earlier. George and Frank would die within five years, leaving three sons and three daughters living by 1925, the year that Dungeness mansion was shut for good.

For the first nine years after her death, Lucy’s trust fund—which derived its income from rentals on the Carnegie Building in Pittsburgh, some stocks, and revenue from the Cumberland Island farm—continued to support her children and the Cumberland Island estate, but by 1925 the children’s incomes had been reduced to $32,000/year each (after Cumberland Island expenses had been paid, the children split the year’s remaining revenue). Proper maintenance on the island was eating up half of the trust’s yearly income. A few of the children rarely came to the island anymore, and while others, including their own children by now, certainly liked their winter homes, they didn’t need an entire island. They were essentially saddled with property they could not afford to keep up, but could not sell, so in order to save money, the first order of business was to shut Dungeness.

Oddly enough, despite the fact that the island was sucking up money, the six remaining Carnegie children could not come to an agreement to sell the land (Margaret would die in 1927, leaving only five sibling). Some continued to live in their island mansions during the winter and spring—Plum Orchard, Stafford House, Greyfield, and The Cottage—but the grounds and the service building began to deteriorate as staff and maintenance budgets were cut. Things only got worse once the stock market crashed in 1929.

Over the years the siblings had many ideas to exploit the land, but moderate logging of the timber, cattle ranching, and hunting were the only businesses that ever panned out (the island did come close to being strip mined). Once used to living on millions, the Carnegies now found themselves hustling to make deals for tens of thousands of dollars.

Dungeness Mansion ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Dungeness Mansion ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

The last Carnegie sibling to die was Florence in 1962. Three years earlier, in 1959, Dungeness burned to the ground. As the story goes, one of the overseers shot a deer poacher who ended up in the hospital. Upon release, he returned to the island, sunk one of the Carnegie’s yachts and burned down Dungeness.

Dungeness Mansion ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Dungeness Mansion ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

By the time it had been destroyed, Dungeness had already been gutted of anything worth value by family members. Olive wood floors and paneling had been taken to build a yacht, and marble fixtures and fireplace mantels had been moved to other homes. Bottom line was that there were no living Carnegies with connections to Cumberland Island who had the money to restore the mansion and pay for its upkeep. Bids had been requested for a contractor to tear it down—at around $15,000 it was too much for them—so the fact that the building was destroyed was no big deal to anyone financially. There was no insurance held on the house.

Ruins of Dungeness Mansion on Cumberland Island

Ruins of Dungeness Mansion on Cumberland Island

The best times to photograph the building are as follows: photograph the front no later than 10 AM and the rear after 11 AM. In the morning the sun is shining on the front of the building, but by 11 AM it has passed over the top and gone towards the backside, lighting that side properly. Only those camping on the island will be able to get to the mansion before 10 AM.

View the front of the mansion and then head towards the right side of the building to get to the tour’s next stop, the Tabby House. The tour path will naturally work its way around to the back of the Dungeness ruins, so save that for later.


NEXT STOP: Tabby House | PREVIOUS STOP: Slavery on Cumberland Island


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Last updated on April 12, 2022
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