Steeped in history and natural beauty, Sapelo Island is the fourth largest of Georgia's chain of barrier islands and home to a small Gullah-Geechee community called Hog Hammock. Sapelo is also home to the R.J. Reynolds Mansion and the Sapelo Island Lighthouse.
Enjoy a day trip to one of the most historic sites in the US
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 is located just outside of Darien, GA and brings to life both the natural and cultural history of Sapelo. Guided island tours highlight the Gullah-Geechee community of Hog Hammock, University of Georgia Marine Institute, the beautiful Reynolds Mansion and a working 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.
Let Us Make Reservations for You
Sapelo Island can be reached only by ferry, and reservations are required. The Darien Waterfront Inn is a short 10-minute drive to the Sapelo Island Ferry and Visitor's Center. Your innkeeper, JoAnn, would be happy to make your Sapelo Island Tour reservations for you. The state of Georgia runs tours on Wednesdays from 8:30AM-12: 30 PM and Saturdays 9:00AM-1: 00 PM at a cost of $15/person.
Additional seasonal tours: An additional tour is offered on Fridays 8:30AM-12:30PM June through Labor Day.
Extended tour offered the last Tuesday of the month, March-October, 8:30AM-3:00PM
* You will need to pack a lunch for the Tuesday extended tour.
The Islands History
Sapelo Island is speculated to be the site of San Miguel de Gualdape, the short-lived first European settlement in present-day U.S. During the 17th century Sapelo Island was part of the Guale missionary province of Spanish Florida. After 1680, several missions were merged and relocated to the island under the mission Santa Catalina de Guale. In the early 19th century Thomas Spalding, a future Georgia Senator and U.S. Representative, bought the island and developed it into a plantation, selling live oak for shipbuilding, introduced irrigation ditches, and cultivated Sea Island Cotton, corn, and sugar cane. Spalding brought 400 slaves to the island from West Africa and the West Indies to work the plantation and build what would become the Spalding Mansion.
In 1820, a Winslow Lewis brick lighthouse was built on the island. Although it remained dark for over ninety years, it was rebuilt and relit in 1998. Spalding opposed the abolishment of slavery and died in 1851 on his way back from a convention to assert Georgia's position on the matter. When freed, the former slaves established several settlements on the island; the last remaining is Hog Hammock with approximately seventy remaining land owners. During the Civil War, the Spalding home was vandalized heavily and lay in ruins.
By the early 20th century the International Road Races were attracting notables from the motor world to Savannah. One attendee was Howard E. Coffin, founder of the Hudson Motor Company in Detroit. Coffin purchased all of the island, save for the land owned by the former slaves, for $150,000 in 1912. Like Spalding, the Coffins embarked on numerous projects. Miles of shell-covered roads were laid, creeks were bridged, old fields were cultivated and large tracts were set aside for cattle grazing. The Coffins also renovated and enlarged the Spalding house, creating an island paradise unsurpassed on the coast. Former presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as well as aviator Charles Lindbergh were guests in the home.
R.J. Reynolds, Jr., of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, bought Sapelo during the Great Depression in 1933 and continued the tradition of agricultural experimentation of the previous owners. Reynolds and his family used the island as a part-time residence for three decades, consolidating the island's African-American residents into Hog Hammock and establishing the basis for the university research facilities. In 1965, Reynolds' widow sold their stake to the state of Georgia, and the mansion takes its name from its final private owner.