Cumberland Island and the Strange Deaths of its Developers

Many men came to violent ends on Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest barrier island. 
Ruins of the old Recreational Building. Photo by Kathleen Walls.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any men came to violent ends on Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest barrier island. No, I’m not talking about the usual explorers killed by Indians or soldiers killed by enemies. These deaths all had an element of strangeness surrounding them.  All of the deaths also revolved around the choice of keeping the island pristine or building on it. 

Cumberland has been inhabited over 4,000 years but man has trod lightly. You can currently only visit via the National Parks Service ferry or private boats. 

Ancient oaks form an arch over the trail to the beach. Photo by Kathleen Walls.

Huge oaks sprawl near the ground providing a haven for birds, squirrels and weary hikers. An armadillo rustles through the underbrush, poking his snoot in soft sand searching for an easy meal.  In the evenings, raccoons amble out of the woods to the shore to snack on crabs and shellfish. 

Island grass is grazed neatly as if mowed, the result of feral horses and wild deer. Nestled into the oak branches, resurrection ferns spring to life after every rain.  Occasionally, a pair of eyes belonging to a resident alligator breaks the surface of one of the small ponds that dot the island.  Saw palmetto intertwines with vines and grasses forming an almost impenetrable barrier to the dunes beyond. When reached, the white sand is marked by deer and horse hoof prints rather than human. At night, sea turtles take part in an ageless rhythm coming ashore to lay their eggs in the same sands from which they were hatched. 

Island horses are a relic of many cultures—Spanish explorers, English settlers, antebellum planters, industrial age millionaires. The most impressive man-made structure on the island is the ruins of Dungeness, former home of Thomas Carnegie. The horses now graze on its once-manicured lawns. 

Today 90% of this nature lovers’ paradise belongs to the park service. The Island has always been a prize for those with an eye to development ever since James Oglethorpe first built a hunting lodge on the island in 1736. So far they have not destroyed the island’s pristine character. 

Nathanael Greene was one of the next to try to build there. He was in the planning stage of building his home on Cumberland Island on top of a Native American shell mound when he died on June 19 1786 at age 43 of sunstroke. The house was to be named Dungeness. His widow later completed the huge, four-story tabby mansion. She had married her children’s tutor, Phineas Miller. Miller died a few years after moving to Cumberland Island and may be buried in the local cemetery, but there is no tombstone recording this. Catherine Greene Miller’s tombstone refers to her as the “Widow of General Nathanael Green.” Dungeness burned to the ground in 1866. 

Next of the strange deaths involved General William George Mackay Davis, a Confederate general and cousin of Jefferson Davis. He was planning on building a resort on Cumberland Island. His son, Bernard, moved there to help. While out hunting one day, Bernard accidentally shot and killed his five-year-old son. Bernard committed suicide a few months later. Devastated, General Davis sold the property to Thomas Carnegie.  

Carnegie chose to build his mansion on the same site as the ruins of the original Dungeness, but died at the age of 43 in 1886. His wife Lucy continued to live in the rebuilt Dungeness until her death.  Later, this Dungeness also burned to the ground in 1959. The arson was believed to be committed by a poacher in revenge for being shot in the leg by one of the family’s employees. Its ruins are a beautiful backdrop to the feral horses often seen grazing on the lawns. 

In the early 1970s, Florida surveyor Louis McKee, a former Candler employee, got into the speculator game and bought one of the largest parcels, 30 acres of upland and 96 acres of marsh. McKee became a big player in buying and selling parcels of the subdivided portions of Cumberland Island.  

Carol Warfton, who had come to the island with her then boyfriend to work for Sam Candler in 1973. Her boyfriend eventually left but Carol stayed. She loved the island and determined to remain no matter what. She dropped her former husband’s name and used only her maiden name, Ruckdeschel and became romantically involved with McKee. 

McKee soon named Ruckdeschel co-owner of much of his property and made her his heir. By late 1979, McKee quitclaimed his interest in some other island property that he had purchased six years earlier that they held in joint ownership with Ruckdeschel and her parents. In March 1980, Ruckdeschel sold the property for $45,000 plus a retained lifetime right.  

Cumberland has one of the most uncrowded beaches in the country. Photo by Kathleen Walls

On April 17, 1980, Ruckdeschel was in her home with a visiting hiker, Peter DiLorenzo. According to Ruckdeschel’s statement, collaborated by DiLorenzo, McKee began to pound on her home’s door and demand entry. Ruckdeschel stated she feared for her life, and when McKee tried to break down the door, she shot him in the chest, ironically, with an illegal sawed off shotgun McKee had given her for protection. When the rangers responded to her phone call, McKee was dead. The Camden County Sheriff and park rangers took Ruckdeschel’s and DiLorenzo’s statements at the sheriff’s office in Woodbine. Robert Coram of the Atlantic Weekly later reported that McKee had physically abused Ruckdeschel weeks prior to the shooting. The next day, a coroner’s jury cleared her without charges.  

Many relics of an earlier time remain on Cumberland. Photo by Kathleen Walls.

Oddly enough, she was still McKee’s heir and able to inherit his property in spite of the shooting. It seems the self-defense verdict left this door open. Carol Ruckdeschel still lives on the island and is very involved with protecting it from outside influences. 

The island is once more suffering from developers attempting to make a buck at the expense of the environment. On Dec. 7, 2016, Camden County Planning and Development Commission granted approval for an 88-acre tract on Cumberland Island to be divided into a 10-lot subdivision. It will be interesting to see what happens next. 

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