Not long after World War II, Georgia politician Melvin E. Thompson spotted a quiet little island between Savannah and the Florida state line and envisioned a park, where citizens of the state could enjoy the unspoiled beaches that were once an exclusive getaway for rich Northerners with names like Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, Morgan, and Rockefeller.
By the time Thompson made a bid for the island in 1947, that high-society heyday was long gone. The grand club, which was once the island’s centerpiece, was shuttered. The island was essentially abandoned. Few saw any value there. Thompson, then acting governor, paid a mere $675,000—about $8.5 million today—for the whole island.
As it turns out, it may have been the deal of the century. Maybe a couple centuries.
Today, Jekyll Island enjoys a veritable renaissance. In the past decade alone, under the ever-watchful eye of the state’s Jekyll Island Authority, the island has undergone some $300 million in investments from state and private investors. New hotels have risen aside revamped older ones and the stately Jekyll Island Club Resort. A new beachfront shopping and gathering epicenter was built in 2015. Jekyll Island has an unmistakably fresh identity.
The beauty of Jekyll Island, though, is that it’s still Jekyll. By law, only 1,600 acres or so of the island’s 5,500 acres can be developed. The rest must stay untouched. (Like its vast maritime forest, new development grows over old.) That gives Jekyll a vibe unlike other nearby destinations. It’s a place that worships nature and respects its past, notable in those pristine beaches and in island bulwarks like the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (rehabilitating reptiles and educating people on the creatures since the 1970s), the nationally designated Historic District, and the newly expanded Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum.
Nearly 400 guests, including dignitaries and elected officials from throughout Georgia, turned out this past Friday evening to commemorate Jekyll Island’s 75th anniversary designation as a state park. The black-tie affair included a synchronized swimming performance from nationally renowned Aqualillies and a massive fireworks display. Signature cocktails were served at the stately Grand Dining Room of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel and capped off with a seated dinner and dancing to Big Band tunes at the Morgan Center Ballroom.
“The celebration was a tremendous event that encapsulated the historic era of Jekyll’s past, while recognizing our present successes and accomplishments yet to come,” says Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority. “The magic of the evening was felt by all who attended. We are grateful to past Governor M.E. Thompson and his vision for Jekyll Island, and thankful for many private partnerships alongside the State of Georgia investments that have allowed the island to remain the public treasure it is today.”
As the island marks its 75th anniversary as a state park, Jekyll Island is being celebrated not only for what it was, but for what it will always remain: a true Georgia gem.