The Captivating History of St. Simon’s Island
Surrounds the King & Prince Resort
Over the past few months we’ve been taking a true journey through the Golden Isle of St. Simons, located off the coast of Georgia. We have met the most interesting people, listened to some amazing tales, and walked through the doors of the King and Prince Resort which is second to none when it comes to ‘5-star’ treatment.
As we branch out, we explore more of the thrilling and sometimes, little known nuggets of history that have affected our country, wars, and even changed the path of plans that had once been laid in stone. And all of these immense things come from an island in the Atlantic that very few people knew about at one time; an island that has been home to French explorers, Spanish fighters, battles, Civil War inventors and engineers, the U.S. Navy as they dealt with Nazis in WWII, and more.
Recently, Curt Smith of the St. Simons Historical Society was kind enough to come to the King and Prince and speak about everything from the mission of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society to the archaeological sites that have been uncovered within the parameters of the Golden Isles. A truly amazing and titillating history, it is time to take a walk through locations and events that will excite and entertain.
The Historical Society actually maintains the incredible lighthouse that sits on St. Simons. Not only that, but their incredible book department and museum store offers texts of legends, with incredible pictures of a time long gone.
St. Simon’s actually goes back much further than you would think, and the creation of the island itself is amazing to uncover. To put it into perspective, massive shifts in the earth’s crust more than 200 million years ago were what created the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountain range on the North American continent. This is why, when compared to the Rockies, the Appalachians have had the time to erode into the nicely sloped peaks we see today.
It is all because of time and Mother Nature that the erosion came about and created silt and sand deposits that were washed into the rivers running down the coast – a coast that was once located one hundred miles North of the present-day line. The sands that were deposited over time ended up to form the beach that makes up St. Simon’s, as the deposits eventually made all the islands of Georgia.
The sea level grew lower and began to form the Barrier Islands as nothing more than exposed ridges that were submerged again every time the sea rose. In fact, there are still some old back roads you can travel that offer you a peek at what is left of the ancient sand dunes that were created. Southern Georgia is notoriously very flat and sandy, and riding these two lane roads where you rise, hit a plateau, and travel over the dunes that are still filled with fossils and shells from an age long gone is a truly interesting adventure.
The sandy ridge of St. Simon’s was formed by a lagoon on the western side. Winds and tides layered the sand and the island developed as we know it today. The great salt marsh was exposed, as well as a series of tidal marshes and rivers that offer nutrients to support an incredibly diverse marine life.
And now…we come to the human race. It was 2000 years ago that the first inhabitants came to St. Simon’s, but no one knows what they originally called themselves, what language they spoke, etc. We do know that they were part of the Mississippian Indian culture that flourished over the southern coast. All through Mississippi and Alabama Indians built massive mounds and cities and were trading with the Indians in Southern Georgia, which can be documented because of the items that have been uncovered.
By the 16th century the ‘colonial world’ was underway and St. Simon’s had a huge part to play. French was originally spoken when the French explorers became the first to make their way here and discover the St. John’s River. Spain was the country that wanted to know exactly what the French were doing. Thus, they set out to basically destroy the French and evict them off the southeastern coast.
The French gave it up relatively quickly, seeing as that they really had no interest in colonization and they were primarily looking for gold. The Spanish, however, were great territorialists and originally set up their stronghold in St. Augustine, Florida – developing the first city on the North American continent. (No, Plymouth was not the first).
When the Spanish arrived on the island, they were actually running out of names for each ‘discovery’ they found, so a lesser-known martyr/saint was chosen to represent this Golden Isle.
It was in 1727 that the English arrived. James Edward Oglethorpe, a British General, member of Parliament, and philanthropist, founded the colony and named it in honor of his King, George II. As a social reformer, Oglethorpe hoped to resettle Britain’s poor in the New World. Georgia was a key contested area, lying in between two colonies…hence, the conflicts began.
St. Simon’s Island experienced the war of Jenkin’s Ear which began in 1739. Troops of the Spanish Coast guard Ia Isabela boarded the British brig Rebecca and found that its captain was smuggling. A Spanish officer, Julio León Fandiño, cut off one of Jenkins’ ears in punishment for his piracy. In retaliation for the boarding and assault on its officer, Great Britain declared war on Spain.
Now George II had more than his share of problems and his son, the Crown Prince Frederick, was also caught in a family war with his father. He would never obtain the throne – but it is from this warring royal father/son duo where the King and Prince got its name.
From the Civil War to two World Wars, as well as the introduction of the automobile, St. Simon’s would see it all. The steady growth, however, of St. Simon’s came on the heels of the Great Depression. The dilapidated hotels of the Victorian age were gone. You see, St. Simon’s was originally a ‘cottage colony’ for the locals who built a series of summer homes; the Victorians came over and enjoyed the beach, but by no means was this a resort, just a little playground for the Georgians.
A beach club came into being which was the King and Prince, a place that has now become a legend. St. Simon’s has seen a lot of hotels over the years, but none were the high caliber of the K&P which is, by the way, the only one still standing from that time period. The original club offered dancing in the ballroom, which is now called the Delegal Room. There were private club rooms and the Oleander patio. The original club was destroyed by fire in 1939, but rebuilt in only sixty days.
Finally, the King and Prince Beach Club opened in 1941…just in time to be taken over by the Navy as WWII began. This is the beginning of another amazingly interesting era and a myriad of recorded history of the Island that has been passed down.
When the Navy took over, there were actually no places to stay on the island and they needed space for an officer’s training school for ‘radar’ – the brand new technology that had to be understood in order to win the War. The King and Prince was the only place to put up such large numbers of people, and two radar towers were soon built approximately where the swimming pools at the King and Prince now reside.
What precipitated this was a surprise attack by Nazi submarines. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in WWII. The attack on Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent German declaration of war on the United States had an immediate effect, but half of the U-Boats able to reach U.S. waters were diverted by Hitler to the Mediterranean, leaving only five boats for Operation Drumbeat.
Radar was new, to say the least, and unfortunately the lights coming from the St. Simon’s shore offered the enemy a very easy and clear shot at destruction. Just off St. Simon’s Island the SS Oklahoma was sailing; a munitions tanker that its men referred to as ‘a floating bomb.’ On the night of April 8, 1942, it was attacked and sunk by German U-boat 123 within site of St. Simon’s. After closing to a distance of 400 meters, Kapitanleutnant Reinhard Hardegan gave the order to fire on the merchant marine vessel. The U-boat fired a single torpedo at the unarmed oil tanker, which suffered a direct hit to its engine room, and the tanker went down in minutes. Nineteen of the thirty-eight merchant marine crew died. Hardegan then went on to find the Esso Baton Rouge and caused the same hideous disaster – three dead out of a forty-one man crew.
Suffice to say, the Navy was taken completely off-guard, and in two days everyone on the island had blackout curtains and had painted all automobile headlights with black paint. There was no more walking on the beach at night; the Navy horse patrols were out all night long and the government even had blimps patrolling up and down the coastline to spot any enemy subs and radio the Navy immediately.
As war progressed the advances in radar were taught on St. Simons Island at the King and Prince and soon the threat of Nazi subs diminished.
The Intracoastal Waterway was not in place before the WWII, but the government soon decided that the U.S. could no longer afford the risk of huge tankers going up and down the coast, wide open to torpedo attacks, so they came to update and use the Intracoastal Waterway for safety.
The Nazis did land some saboteurs on Amelia Island, however they were all caught because they left so much material on the beach when they landed that the Navy knew of their presence almost immediately.
McKinnon Airport, which is still on the island, was the original training school for U.S. fighter pilots, which was rebuilt shortly after the submarine incident. Recently, when they were scraping the runways, an incredibly large prehistoric Indian town was discovered. The town was excavated and photos were taken, and some of the objects are still on the island…but the actual town was basically obliterated during the war by the Navy who were calling the shots and needed those runways installed. A truly historical loss.
The King and Prince was used as lodging for families who were coming down to claim the bodies of their sons who were killed overseas. The bodes were shipped into Jacksonville, but there was soon no room, thus the caskets were delivered to St. Simon’s before being sent home for burial.
After the war, the King and Prince was returned to civilian use and the resort we know today came into existence. A complete renovation began in the 1970s and continued for most of the 1980s. You can still see aspects of the early days of the King and Prince, and learn all about the fact that, for a time, nefarious things happened here, especially gambling. During the renovations false doors have been found, as well as the original terrazzo floor being kept in the dining room under the plush carpeting. And the stained glass windows which were installed right after the war depict scenes from the island’s unique history.
Some other famous islands include, Jekyll Island which is to the north, and Cumberland Island which offers sites from where Carnegie and other members of the filthy rich ‘400 Club’ built their huge ‘vacation’ mansions.
Sapelo is also an interesting island which is where archaeologists have uncovered the sites of Spanish missions that were once built there. Spain sent countless missionaries over to develop these towns, unfortunately, all were built out of wood so many have been washed away.
As we walk back through time, it is truly amazing to see, learn, and discover all the things that have made our culture what it is today. The only unfortunate part?
Curt Smith said it best. “There’s a curious thing about history, it never stops happening. It is an evolving story. But…if no one is paying attention, history is the one thing that can be lost forever.”
Think about this as you explore this amazing island and delve into the elegance and beauty during your stay at the King and Prince Resort. Because there, you will truly be surrounded by some of the most remarkable occurrences in American history – occurrences that should and must be passed down to the next generation.
To contact the Historical Society:
A. W. Jones Heritage Center
610 Beachview Drive
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
Telephone: (912) 638-4666 * Fax: (912) 638-6609
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the King and Prince:
The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort
201 Arnold Road
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
(912) 638-3631: Phone
(800) 342-0212: Reservations
(912) 638-7699: Fax