Tybee Island Alive with History - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

09/30/07

Tybee Island Alive with History

The fourth Tybee lighthouse was built on the base of the old third lighthouse after the Civil War and was operated by the US Coast Guard until 1987. The fourth Tybee lighthouse was built on the base of the old third lighthouse after the Civil War and was operated by the US Coast Guard until 1987.
Battery Garland was built in 1899 as part of Fort Screven and still stands today. It has now been converted into the Tybee Island museum. Battery Garland was built in 1899 as part of Fort Screven and still stands today. It has now been converted into the Tybee Island museum.
Get a dose of old time Tybee fun at the museum. Get a dose of old time Tybee fun at the museum.
Visitors take in some history at the Tybee Island lighthouse and museum. Visitors take in some history at the Tybee Island lighthouse and museum.

On October 20 and 21, the City of Tybee Island is celebrating its 120th birthday and everyone is invited to attend the two-day event. And while it promises to be a fun-filled weekend, it is important to understand Tybee's rich history that makes the city and the island what it is today.

"In 1887, Tybee Island became chartered as the township of Tybee Island," explained executive director of the Tybee Island Historical Society Cullen Chambers.

But Tybee's history dates back long before its inception as a city.

The name "Tybee" actually comes from the Euchee Indian word for "salt" because an abundance of it was found on the island. Little remains of the Euchee Indians now, and Tybee's name is one of the few pieces of evidence that native Americans ever inhabited the island. 

Spanish and French settlers both set foot on Tybee's shores but were eventually driven out by the British in the 1730s, when Gen. James Oglethorpe established the colony of Georgia and took over the island.

Tybee quickly became an important navigational and military tool for Georgia. Between 1733 and 1773, three lighthouses were built on Tybee to help ships navigate in and out of the Savannah River. It also became one of Savannah's most important lines of defense.

In 1779, Tybee Island was used as a staging area for the multinational force attack against British controlled Savannah. The Siege of Savannah would become the third bloodiest battle in the Revolutionary War.

For almost a century, Tybee remained a military stronghold for the City of the Savannah, but because of its remote location and very limited access, few civilians resided on the island.

"Beyond the military presence at that time, there was not a lot of civilian population out here, it was sporadic," explained Chambers. "Mosquitoes, the heat, Mother Nature itself seemed to work against established, permanent settlement out here."

The few farms on the island failed because of mosquito-born diseases and once new military technology was developed in the 1800s that could breach brick walls, Tybee's brick forts became obsolete.

But everything changed when the Georgia Central railway built a connection out to Tybee in 1886. "It really solidified Tybee as a tourist destination," Chambers said. He credits the tourism development of Tybee to the post-Civil War period, after Northerners stationed at Tybee would describe its beauty and climate to friends and family back home.

Large-scale resorts were being built on the island, and because of the rail system, day tripping became possible and the new accessibility to the island finally allowed for year-round residents.

"And that's really what brings you to today with the celebration of that time period, because Tybee became more of a community, " said Chambers. "The rail transformed Tybee Island forever up until 1923 when Tybee Road was built and then that transformed Tybee beyond anyone's imagination."

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Tybee was booming. Jazz and nightclubs took over the island during what Chambers calls the Big Band Era. "It was an exciting, dynamic, vital community and that existed until World War II," he said.

And until 1947, Fort Screven (built to defend Georgia's coast during the Spanish-American War) remained an active military base before it was closed and sold to the City of Tybee.

By the 1950s, tourism started to decline and by the 1970s, year-round residents made up most of the island's population. "The character of the island went from exciting and vibrant to basically funky," said Chambers.

During the 1990s, tourists started making Tybee's beaches a vacation destination again and today, Tybee Island remains one of coastal Georgia's premier places for food, fun and relaxation.  

Tybee Island's 120th celebration is October 20 through the 21.

And though we may only be celebrating the birthday of the township charter, hopefully you'll remember the rich history that is today's Tybee Island. 

Visit http://www.celebratetybee.org for more information and a complete schedule of events.

Reported by: Sarah Schuster, sschuster@wtoc.com

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