The Writing Traveler: Walking the Sands of the Rich

Fifty-three of the country’s wealthiest families purchased Jekyll and formed the Jekyll Island Club, the richest, most exclusive club in the world.

PERCHED UPON THE SANDS and beyond the dunes of Jekyll Island was a place of refuge and solace for the rich, the very, very rich.

Their names were synonymous with wealth and power and prestige.

They were the lords of industry who could sit quietly within an enclosed room, scribble a few notes on a scratch piece of paper, whisper a few well-chosen rumors over a glass of their finest whiskey reserves, and start or stop a war, begin or end a recession, keep American running on as many or as few cylinders as they cared to ignite.

The rich and famous journeyed to the coast of Georgia from the north, and they arrived in hushed tones, quietly and anonymously. It was a time, just after the turn of the twentieth century, when secrets weren’t that difficult to keep.

The island was a world unto itself, and no one paid any attention when the train stopped, and they slipped like large shadows in topcoats on toward the edge of the Atlantic.

All together, in one singular place, gathered men who, for the most part, had known aristocracy since birth.

Here walked such men as J. D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Joseph Pulitzer, J. P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, the Wizard of Wall Street, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was on the isle to personally install the stained glass windows in a fine array of home, and Frank Henry Goodyear, who left home with a hundred dollars in his pocket, built an empire on the riches of iron, railroads, coal, and lumber, and made his trek to the sea island each year, he said, “to get away from the wretched weather.”

Caleb Pirtle III

In the mid-1880s, fifty-three of the country’s wealthiest families purchased Jekyll from a French farmer for $125,000 – they borrowed the money, of course – and formed the Jekyll Island Club, the richest, most exclusive club in the world.

How rich were they?

Well, when the dollars are adjusted for inflation, John D. Rockefeller was twice as rich as Bill Gates during the height of the dot.com boom, and it was estimated that the handful of members represented, at any time, from one-fourth to  one-sixth of the world’s wealth.

To join, there were only two rules. Each member had to an active head of a powerful corporation, and each must have more than a million dollars, preferably in cash.

They built thirty-three elegant mansions, called them cottages, and found their own personal retreat after searching the world to uncover the most healthy and secluded place they could find. They wanted to be hidden away within a twenty-four-hour train ride from New York and far from weekend social climbers and a probing press.

The island had always been abundant with deer, turkey, and quail, but now it was further stocked with 300 wild boar and English pheasant – presented to J. Pierpont Morgan by Italy’s King Umberto.

As November came to an end in 1910, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, the assistant secretary of the Treasury A. Piatt Andrew, and five other of the nation’s most influential financiers gathered on the isle to discuss the banking system and wound up creating the Federal Reserve.

Among the rich, almost anything could be accomplished on Jekyll.

The island was luxury at its finest.

But, alas, all good things eventually come to an end.

Sometime during 1942, a German submarine was sighted just off the coast, and the millionaires, fearing that such an aggregation of wealth might be enticing to the enemy to America’s shores, quickly packed and left.

Few ever returned.

And none ever stayed for long.

They left their cottages – some with twenty-five to thirty rooms and one boasting seventeen bathrooms – dark and abandoned, shuttered and condemned to time, weather, and ruin.

The grand mansions might have all been lost but five years after the wealthy boarded a train and headed north for the final time, the state of Georgia purchased Jekyll Island’s 11,000 scenic acres, began restoring the mansions, and opened a new state park upon the playground of America’s very, very rich. The twenty-five-room Rockefeller cottage now houses the Jekyll Museum.

We see what’s left behind.

We walk the beaches where the wealthy and powerful have walked.

But the secrets of big business – the high-stakes deals, fights, and feuds that took place within those walls – remain untold and buried somewhere in the sands and on the far side of the dunes.

You can find many stories of my travels in my memoir of sorts: The Man Who Talks to Strangers. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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