Hammersmith Creek alongside Altama Plantation
Photo: Jason Crawley
Photo: Jason Crawley

Georgians, wildlife will soon roam on what tycoons called home

Atlanta entrepreneur and philanthropist Cator Woolford bought Altama in 1933. A year after Woolford’s death, in 1945, the scion of the Sea Island Co. acquired the property and turned it into a hunting preserve for family and friends.

Altama Plantation, today, belongs to you.

Photos: Scenes of Altama Plantation past and present

The state of Georgia, with much financial help from the Nature Conservancy, the federal government and private donors, bought the historic, biologically diverse 4,000-acre tract along a tributary to the Altamaha River. It will throw open the main gate, a stone’s throw from I-95, to the public any day now.

Miles of carriage roads and sandy trails wend past the old rice plantation’s canals and dikes, beckoning hikers, hunters, bikers, kayakers and birders. Two stately old homes, surrounded by resplendent live oaks, magnolias and cypress trees, await restoration. A famed English Regency garden lies buried under decades of vegetation. The ruins of a circa 1820s sugar refinery stir the imagination.

Altama’s importance, though, is much more than simply a playground for enthusiasts of history and the outdoors. The plantation is one of the most significant final properties the state is stitching together to serve as a 120-mile-long wildlife corridor stretching from Florida through the Okefenokee Swamp to Fort Stewart.

The mostly uninterrupted greenway will allow threatened or endangered species such as the gopher tortoise, red cockaded woodpecker and eastern indigo snake to wander almost unimpeded across the coastal marshes and timbered uplands in search of shelter and love. Plans call for large-scale restoration of the longleaf pine and wiregrass forests.

The corridor will also serve as a bulwark against the ravages of climate change. Rising sea levels will push saltwater marshes — critical habitat that nourishes critters large and small — further inland. Undeveloped bottomlands at Altama and beyond will become the new wetlands.

“The corridor is one of the greatest unsung conservation success stories of the last 20 years,” said Jason Lee, a manager with the state’s Department of Natural Resources whose job, and passion, is to link together the corridor. “It is on par with any conservation development in the United States.”

Agricultural and engineering wonder

Longleaf pine forests once covered 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas and reached deep into Georgia. Timbering, turpentine and development all but wiped away the forests. Today, about 3.5 million acres remain.

The high-canopied forests, rejuvenated by frequent burnings, soared majestically when the King of England granted William Hopeton 2,000 acres along the southern bank of the Altamaha River in 1763. Hopeton, a wealthy grower in South Carolina, established a rice plantation along the tidal flats.

Two Scottish immigrants bought the property 40 years later, adding Sea Island cotton and hundreds of slaves to the operation that shipped crops to England via the bustling port of Darien a few miles downriver. James Hamilton Couper, a son, transformed the plantation into something of an agricultural and engineering marvel with canals and dikes to control the water’s flow and a rail system to transport crops to the river.

Couper visited Holland and learned the importance of tidal floodgates. He added sugar cane fields and a refinery. In addition, Couper led the survey team for the Georgia-Florida border and designed Christ Church in Savannah. A noted scientist, Couper recorded the first eastern indigo snake, otherwise known as Drymarchon couperi.

“He was probably one of the most accomplished or skilled agriculturalists of his day. He was very innovative and resourceful,” said Buddy Sullivan, a coastal Georgia historian. “And Altama is one of the most historic plantation properties along the Middle Georgia coast.”

The Civil War, and slavery’s demise, killed Altama. The fields rotted, the canals collapsed, the homes, barns and sugar shack succumbed to the heat and the swamp. A short-lived effort by a Shaker colony to grow rice and raise cattle foundered by 1902. A succession of wealthy businessmen bought the property and refashioned it to their fancies.

DuPont built a house modeled on the original plantation home and cleared a field to train horses. Woolford, whose credit check business became Equifax, added the “Play House” and swimming pool. The Sea Island Co.’s Jones family built cabins for its members; the horse track was turned into an airfield.

A private equity firm bought Altama out of the Sea Island bankruptcy in 2010, intending to develop homes and shops while timbering the land until the economy turned. It sold the plantation to the Nature Conservancy last year for $7.8 million and kept 1,500 acres along I-95 for future development.

Georgia, via a mix of state bonds and a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, paid $3.5 million and now owns the property. The U.S. Marine Corps, keen to protect a flyway from the Atlantic Ocean to a nearby bombing range, added $2.5 million for a restricted easement that prohibits development. The Nature Conservancy and two private foundations covered the rest.

‘Amazon of North America’

On a Georgia map, the wildlife corridor doesn’t look like much. While Georgia’s 100-mile-long coast and barrier islands have been relatively well protected and underdeveloped, the coastal plains offer a mishmash of privately owned lands, municipal property and conservation areas.

Yet the 440,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp on the corridor’s south end and the 280,000-acre Fort Stewart on the north end anchor an S-shaped agglomeration of publicly controlled lands that will allow animals near-unfettered room to roam.

“If you can connect working landscapes, where people are still harvesting timber, raising cattle and growing traditional crops, with more secure properties owned by the state, the feds, the Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Land Trust, then you can put together a significant matrix of connectivity,” said Don Imm, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Athens. “These long corridors really support many, many species.”

Altama Plantation is the crossroads for two environmentally critical corridors: the north-south greenway and the lower Altamaha River watershed. Altama protects five miles of riverfront property. The Nature Conservancy and the state are working to secure another huge chunk of the corridor — the Sansavilla Tract, a 20,000-acre timber farm and wetlands a few miles upriver from Altama. Forty miles of the Altamaha, from Little St. Simons to Jesup, on both sides of the river, will be protected once Sansavilla is added to the mix in 2016.

Threatened or endangered species, including the shortnose sturgeon, robust redhorse, Altamaha spinymussel and flatwoods salamander, stand a better chance of survival once the two corridors are further stitched together.

“The Altamaha is probably the most diverse river system in North America. We refer to it as the ‘Amazon of North America’ in terms of its sheer biodiversity,” said Jared Teutsch, the conservation director for the Nature Conservancy in Georgia. “The larger the parcel, the better from a scientific standpoint.”

Nowhere, though, is immune from the ravages of a warming climate. The Atlantic Ocean’s predicted 3-foot rise by 2110 will bring a surge of salt water miles inland. Saltwater marshes will migrate upland, replacing freshwater marshes and tidal bottomlands. Altama Plantation, though, will slow the onslaught while giving various marine and plant species time to adapt to a changing climate.

The DNR will take a year to decide Altama’s future. Restoration of the longleaf pine is one likely project. Historical and archaeological studies are also planned. Sullivan, the historian, says the plantation deserves a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lee, the state conservationist, is rightly proud that Altama’s grandeur will no longer be threatened.

“Putting together this diversity of habitat along the entire corridor — including some cypress trees that are 2,000 years old — is just a phenomenal achievement,” he said. “And it’s all public land.”

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Altama timeline

1400s: Native Americans live along the Altamaha River. Altama is translated as on “the way to Tama,” home to an Indian settlement.

1500 and 1600s: Spanish and French soldiers and settlers roam the area.

1763: William Hopeton of South Carolina receives a 2,000-acre land grant from the King of England and establishes Hopeton Plantation.

1805: John Couper and James Hamilton, Scottish immigrants with plantations on nearby St. Simons Island, buy Hopeton, add hundreds of slaves and plant Sea Island cotton.

1827: Couper’s son James Hamilton Couper takes control of the plantation and adds sugar cane, canals, floodgates and a movable rail system.

1865: The Civil War’s end dooms the slave-based plantation system. Altama and Hopeton fall into ruin.

1898: A Shaker colony grows rice and raises cattle during a short-lived effort to revitalize the plantations.

1914: William DuPont buys both plantations and renames them Altama.

1930: Atlanta businessman Cator Woolford buys Altama.

1944: Alfred W. Jones, scion of nearby Sea Island Co., buys Altama largely for a hunting retreat.

2010: A Texas private equity firm buys the property intending to develop homes and shops.

2015: The state of Georgia buys Altama.

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