As I left Tybee Island last week, I decided to pay a visit to the north end of the island (the pier and our time-share are on the south end) where the lighthouse and Ft. Screven are located. Back in 1733, after the British took control of Tybee from the Spanish and then the pirates, 10 families were settled on the island with land grants. But conditions were so primitive and harsh that all had left or died after just a few years. Its also interesting to note that unlike many of the barrier islands Native Americans never actually lived on Tybee, although we know they visited it. The name Tybee actually means “salt” in the Euchee Indian language.
The first lighthouse was built by the British in 1736. After Tybee and Georgia became part of the United States after the Revolutionary War, a lighthouse has always been maintained on Tybee, as the port of Savannah has always been important, and the entrance to the Savannah River runs alongside Tybee Island. For many years the lighthouse keeper and his family were the only people living on Tybee, and the only access was by boat.
But in the 1800’s things began to change on all the barrier islands. They became the playgrounds those rich enough to enjoy some leisure time. And while Tybee cannot begin to compare to the wealth that came to reside south of here on islands like Jekyll and St. Simon’s and Cumberland, there were people living in Savannah that liked to venture out to the island for the day. An excursion railroad was built and that was the beginning of the causeways. The first hotel opened on Tybee in 1850, and the railroad began to run in 1887. Tourism was born on Tybee Island! By the 1880’s there were many hotels and a thriving community had developed. It was not until 1923 that the first road was built that ran all the way out to Tybee. For those of you familiar with this area, my friend tells me that the original route followed US 80 to Whitmarsh Island, and then followed what is now Johnny Mercer Blvd. on Whitmarsh and Wilmington Islands until it once again merged onto what is now the end of US 80 onto Tybee.
The history of Ft. Screven follows the history of the United States and the army. It changed hands in the Civil War from the Confederacy to the United States, and was used by both sides during those hostilities. As I said earlier it holds a position of great importance at the mouth of the Savannah River. There were at least two other forts along the Savannh River until you reached Savannah. During WW1 it was used as a training station, and its presence and the presence of the soldiers helped develop Tybee into more than just a tourist town. Following that, the CCC used it as a base in the 1930’s, and they helped rebuild Ft. Pulaski on Cockspur Island just south of Tybee, and they also helped build the first bridge to the island in 1938. Ft. Screven was decommissioned in 1944, and from that point on the islanders have found many interesting uses for the buildings and battlements.