Tybee’s Dune Man

Tybee Island Ghosts..

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… Up and down the eastern seaboard there are stories about strange ‘entities’ that inhabit the shorelines. From the rocky coasts of Maine to the sandy beaches of South Florida, tales are numerous and varied, and those from Georgia’s barrier islands are no exception.

The Golden Isles, which have stood for centuries against the Atlantic, are nothing more than a series of dunes that have been accumulating one on top of another since ancient times. Anchored by floating mats of sea rack and other debris that gather along the shore, dunes are formed as the ocean’s winds pick up sand and drop it inland from the beach. Year after year, the sand piles high into ridges that eventually collect enough mass to sustain small trees, island shrubs and other vegetation,… tall sea oats, native grasses and weeds.

These newer formations rising along the beaches are not only the first line of defense against the powerful forces of wind and water, they support a unique ecosystem that thrives beneath the shelter of the small trees and underbrush.

At certain points along Tybee’s main shoreline, dunes are so large that they appear as rows of small hillocks running horizontally along the beach with a shallow depression between them. In recent years, the City of Tybee installed wooden cross-overs so that beach goers wouldn’t have to navigate the gulfs.

Micheal Elliott’s book, Running with the Dolphins (1995) specifically references one of these depressed areas as the ‘Valley of the Sea Chicken’  in his chapter about ‘Tenth Street.’  Apparently, locals used to joke that some small creature roamed the dunes at night – most likely, one of their own playing tricks on campfire gatherings or couples petting on the beach.

These days there are restrictions against building fires on the beach, and strict protections for the dunes, but you still hear stories,… and they’re not about the sea chicken.

Tybee has also placed wooden swings on the beach near the end of each of the crossovers. They are seldom vacant, even at night as residents and visitors relax at the edge of the ‘valley’ beside the mesmerizing sounds of the surf, to enjoy the ocean breezes and other ‘extracurricular’ activities.

Facing directly East, with one’s back to the dunes, the sight is particularly captivating, especially on nights when the moon is full and its rising affords a panoramic view of sailing clouds and glistening waves stretching out as far as the eye can see in three directions.

One frequent visitor to the beach used to spend long hours on the swing at the end of Twelfth Street after midnight.  He swears that on several moonlit occasions, out of the corner of his eye, he saw figures running between the surf and the dunes, sometimes farther down the beach, sometimes closer.  He calls them shadow people and says what makes them surreal is the speed at which they streak back and forth.

He admits that eyes can play tricks, but he’s not alone in his descriptions.

Others have seen these figures, especially in the winter when the island is quiet and the beach, deserted. More than one beach stroller has testified they also get the distinct impression they are being followed by someone or something that retreats to the dunes.

One particularly interesting story comes from three young Atlanta friends who were recently spending the weekend on Tybee during off-season. They’d walked to a local restaurant on South End for dinner, and later, after discovering that the moonlight was as bright as day, decided to take a late-night walk back to their rental by way of the beach.

They passed a number of dune crossovers as they made their way down, and eventually two of the friends, a couple, decided to rest in one of the swings. As the third stood facing them engaged in conversation, he noticed what he thought was a bush moving in the dunes about twenty yards away. At first he shrugged it off, but when suddenly it moved again, he mentioned it, and quietly pointed it out.

His two companions turned to see, but there was no movement.  As the conversation continued, however, the young man kept his eye on the spot.  Sure enough, nearly ten minutes later, the bush moved again. This time, he was able to quickly nudge his friends, who also noticed, but as they were poised to investigate, not only did it move, it slowly rose – an expanding, crouching shadow, and began to slide sideways.

The movement stopped their advance, as did a chilly change of temperature. The young man described the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.  Immediately, his curiosity drained away.  He and his friends could think of nothing but getting off the beach as quickly as possible. Thankfully, they were just yards away from the Eleventh Street crossover…

A similar story appears as a  reader’s submission on a site known as GHOSTS AND GHOULSThis one takes place on a night when there was a lot of heat lightning on the beach, but it also describes what appeared to be a dark, transparent figure in the dunes,  ‘a luminous shadow, shaped like a man.’

(More to come)

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Real Spooks © 2012 – Cynthia Farr Kinkel

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Song for Lazaretto

Real Spooks © 2012 cynthiakinkel

Tybee Island Ghosts…

“SONG FOR LAZARETTO” – f# minor (copyright Jan. 2001)

1. It runs to the mouth of South Channel, with the tide, it meanders ’round winding its way through the marsh’s waving grasses and soggy ground. It curves like a rippled gray ribbon, the sash on a satin gown, and touches the back of the island on the side where the sun goes down. Many red sunsets have lingered high above this floating plain, to promise relief from the storms at sea – from the waves, the wind, and the rain.

2. The Uchee walked on Tybee long before the Spanish came; … from the Hitchiti-Maya word for ‘salt,’ the island got its name. Though fearsome pirates ventured here whose deeds became renowned, where Blackbeard buried his treasure dear, has never yet been found. While pirate days were numbered, also, French and Spanish gain, the English anchored at Tybee, determined to remain.

3. The founders envisioned Savannah: ‘No tenured property – a viceless, yeoman’s utopia; no rum, no slavery.’ Then trade in Chatham began to fail, and small farms but survived, while over in South Carolina, the rice plantations thrived. As loss and disenchantment overshadowed past convictions, they offered the land grant titles, and lifted the slave restrictions.

4. For years, when ships reached Tybee Light, they’d stop at South Channel Sound. They’d unload the sick and the dying, both the free, … and the bound. They’d leave them here, where this little creek, still far from Savannah town, touches the back of the island on the side where the sun goes down … at a place called ‘lazaretto,’ where a quarantine would hold all the ones with dreaded diseases, and the ones too sick to be sold.

5. While great blue herons nested out beyond the island’s view, mosquito swarms would buzz and bite ’til evening breezes blew. Windswept cedars, and pines, and palms, and crooked oak trees spread … alms of mercy at ‘lazaretto,’ like a summons to ‘raise the dead.’ Though comforters braved the perils, and full moons waxed and waned, there was no such ‘resurrection,’ for the dying who remained.

Refrain 1: Lazaretto! Here, beyond the stormy sea, was no promise for tomorrow, in your sunset reverie? Why must these things be so? What hope can ever be, as we lie here, Lazaretto, to rise again and be free?

6. Now, the South had known misfortune, but the price was high to pay, when the Union armies marched right in, and took it all away. Though Sherman spared Savannah the flames that others knew, the way of life was ended … and the means of living, too. While great plantations emptied, and the fields were laid so low, the slaves were freed, but many stayed. They’d nowhere else to go.

7. But the worst they’d fear on Tybee now were fevers and hurricanes. The days of the quarantines would close, leaving the last remains of the site where many perished, tide-washed and over-grown, … while rails were laid, then, a road was made, and seeds of progress, sown. Nothing survives to mark the graves of the souls lost in that place, … nothing perhaps, but a secret mark, that time cannot erase.

8. Today, the bridge that spans the creek affords a scenic view of the waters off Cockspur Light, as they rush to the ocean blue. Here, the island ‘shrimpers’ dock, and nearby, dolphins play, while hungry seabirds circle low to scavenge what they may … and out on the west horizon, where the miles of marshes grow, the sunsets still do linger as they did so long ago.

9. Many tales are told of those who’ve walked these timeless beaches, and the ways of former slaves live on where the GeeChee culture reaches. The creek still curves like a ribbon, as it winds along with the tide, though it cannot tell a single word how any have lived or died, but at times out here, there’s a sound on the wind, the voice of a memory, that fills the heart of these marshes, like the tide that’s up from the sea,

Refrain 2: “Lazaretto, … many things should never be as the deeds and reasons sleeping fill the pages of history. Yet, there is no doubt as the years rush out to meet eternity, they who lie here in the depths below, … asleep in mystery ….

10. … May also hear that trumpet blow beyond the stormy sea – down … where your waters flow the day you set them free … down, …where your waters flow on the sundown side of Tybee, … like a witness, Lazaretto, you wait so patiently – a witness, Lazaretto, wait and see…”

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Copyright 2012, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel

A Chill in the Basement… and a history lesson.

Palm-sunset

“SONG FOR LAZARETTO” (copyright 2001)

Tybee Island Ghosts…

After researching the history of Tybee’s Lazaretto Creek some years ago, I wrote an article for The Tybee Times called,  “A Lazaretto Primer,”  … also wrote a poem that later became a song which incorporates an interpretation of that history. 

I don’t presume to know any particulars besides what’s written here, and of course there may be others on Tybee and elsewhere who can add more accurate details.

Some have labeled the following tale a “ghost story.” I agree, for as the bitter cold of Ohio’s winter in 2001 piled snow high outside our basement windows, I had what some might describe as a ‘visitation.’ The encounter caught me off guard, and whatever happened, it cured my writer’s block once and for all. Never again will I put off writing when such inspiration calls.

This story has been revised twice and appears on other sites with updates. The events are true, but since feelings are subjective, I’ll let the reader decide between fact and fiction.

It was January 2001, on the eve of the death of my family friend and mentor, Emma Kelly, Johnny Mercer’s “Lady of 6000 Songs.” John Berendt’s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil devotes an entire chapter to this beloved local character.

I was in the basement of our Silver Lake home, carrying out a New Year’s resolution to clean out my desk. While sorting through stacks of papers and junk mail that had accumulated in the middle drawer, I noticed a small blue pamphlet brought back from Tybee Island the summer before.

I’d picked it up at the Tybee Lighthouse gift shop while on vacation, and the folksy promotional piece provided a pleasant diversion from the howling blizzard outside. To my surprise, it mentioned a ‘quarantine’ that had once operated on the far west side of the island. Though I’d grown up in the region, and paid many visits to Tybee, I’d never heard of it. Information about the legacy of Lazaretto Creek and the quarantine itself was sparse. Obviously it wasn’t the most documented of local attractions.

It hardly takes a snowstorm – I’d choose research over cleaning any day, so I got out my southern history books, and began a search online, and spent the rest of that afternoon and a portion of the next delving into the founding history of Georgia, Savannah, and Tybee Island, the presence of the Spanish, the native Americans, the pirates, and the Civil War.

The pamphlet specifically mentioned the ‘Euchee’ (Uchee/Yuchi) Indians. I’ve since learned that while it is true that the word “Tybee” is derived from the word Taube, which means ‘salt,’ the word was used by the Itza Maya, Apalache Creek/Itzate (Hitchiti). The native Americans who initially lived and hunted at the mouth of the Savannah River were in fact “Chicora,” and the Uchee, who lived along the banks of the Oconee, and at the headwaters of the Ogeechee, Chatanooga, and Savannah Rivers, while being associated for a time with the islands of Wahale (or Guale) including Tybee, may have merely adopted the word as their own, … but that’s another story altogether.

Twenty miles east of Savannah, Tybee is the most northerly of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” A small strip of land juts westward from the island into a vast area of coastal marshlands. This strip which also has immediate access to the Savannah River shipping channel, became the location for two consecutive quarantines that operated during the late 1700s into the early 1800s.

The first, located on the tidal creek that now bears its name, was simply called a ‘lazaretto.’ At the end of the eighteenth century, it housed unfortunate European immigrants who contracted contagious diseases on board ship during the transatlantic voyage to America. It was also the ‘welcoming station’ for a host of African slaves who emerged from the cargo holds after the treacherous middle passage.

Like all seaports, Savannah could ill afford contamination of the mainland, so incoming vessels experiencing outbreaks of deadly scourges like yellow fever and cholera were required to unload the sick and cleanse the decks before continuing up river to port. Sometimes they were forced to remain at the mouth of the Savannah River for months before given clearance to proceed.

The present-day Italian term lazaretto, or lazaret simply translated means ‘hospital,’ but in the Middle Ages it literally meant ‘pest house’ – a place for those dying from the plague or leprosy. Derived from the Hebrew word lazar, or leper, it also refers to the biblical figure, Lazarus, the one that Christ raised from the dead. Research also indicates that remote portions of the first quarantine, a 104-acre tract purchased in 1767 from patriot, Josiah Tattnall probably served as a leper’s colony.

After continuous use throughout the Revolution, the Savannah Grand Jury reported the first site in ‘ruinous condition’ in 1785, so it was abandoned, and a new site opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. I also learned that in 1954 the Georgia Historical Society had placed the small historic marker (pictured below), at the original site’s general vicinity along Highway 80 East.

That second evening around 9:30 p.m. after everyone else had gone to bed, I went to the basement to finish putting my desk in order. Afterward, I sat down to write. I’d organized my thoughts into what I decided would be a poem about the history of Savannah, the quarantines, and the surrounding marshes. Since I’d never done enough boating around the island or in the marsh to be familiar with specific spots, I set out to describe the place as best I could. I’d barely gotten first two lines down, when a strange thing happened. It began as a slight tingle – then, as if someone had slipped up beside me, and touched me on the shoulder, there was whispering in my ear.

The words were gibberish, but the next moment I could feel myself standing shoulder-deep, in cold, rushing water. Tall green grasses were all around, and the banks smelled of salt. Suddenly, it dawned on me – I was in the marsh, and much to my horror, being sucked down by the undertow. For several anxious seconds, I felt I was drowning. The feeling made me nauseous. Then, as quickly as the sensations came, they were gone.

I sat there wondering if I were coming down with something, or had a heart attack, a stroke – whatever it was, it was very real. I went upstairs to get a drink of water, and came back to resume my seat at the computer, to read over the words I’d typed:

“It runs from the mouth of South Channel, with the tide it meanders round…”

It wasn’t late, and I was anything but sleepy, so I decided to keep writing, while waiting to see what else might happen. Except for the fact that I couldn’t stop before a ten-versed poem emerged, the rest of the evening was uneventful.

The following afternoon, my mom called from Georgia to tell me that Emma Kelly had died. Now, I don’t believe for a minute this rather clairvoyant experience had anything to do with Emma, other than the occurrence served to mark her passing for me.

Emma Thompson Kelly (Dec. 17th, 1918 – Jan. 17th, 2001)

The strangest thing was that exactly one year later to the day, January 17th, I was crossing the Lazaretto, coming to live on Tybee Island. In the months that followed, I thought about “Miss Emma” every time I passed the Pirate’s House where she’d played at Hannah’s East in downtown Savannah. I also flashed upon that night in the basement each time I drove over the bridge onto the island. I still think about it sometimes.

It wasn’t until 2005, however, while I was working on an entertainment article for a local publication that I learned the spot on the western side of the island where the fishing fleet now docks was definitely considered to be haunted by some of the locals. I’d hoped to start off with a house on Officer’s Row for my series on Tybee ghosts, but it was the holidays and the owners weren’t in town, so I ended up visiting Lazaretto Creek.

When folks at the marina claimed to have seen figures with tattered clothes walking out on the docks in the darkness, I wasn’t surprised. I was told that on two occasions, one such figure walked right into a room, stood and stared in silence, then disappeared. It’s still a mystery, but they said it was one of “Lazaretto’s Lost Souls.”

If ever a place had reason to be haunted, this might be one. Granted, it isn’t Gettysburg, Hiroshima, or Dauchau, or a place where millions have suffered, and I don’t wish to labor the point, but eighteenth century necessity paid a brief, but costly visit to Lazaretto Creek, another lonely little corner of the world, where outcasts perished. For those dying in quarantine on the outskirts of the New World after traveling across the vast ocean in hopes of finding a better life, it was a terrible fate. Or imagine being torn away from loved ones and homeland, and thrown into the pain and horror of slavery. After languishing in chains in the stench and filth below deck with the rest of your unfortunate comrades, you’d probably have welcomed death rather than recovery, especially if there was no hope of freedom.

Mercifully, the passage of time has restored the natural tranquility of places like Lazaretto, and when it comes to pinning down real apparitions, some might say there’s more evidence of ‘non-human’ activity in the world, than of human ghosts. Still, our    ‘common ground’ holds many secrets. Who knows? As generation upon generation lies down in the dust of the earth, layer upon layer, perhaps the earth itself retains a collective memory of everything that happens here. Maybe some ‘hauntings’ are simply captured memories – like with a video recording, something triggers the ‘playback,’ and images from the past appear on the scene. But I’m no expert. I’m just a storyteller.

The poem I wrote that snowy night in Ohio is an historical tale influenced by what I “felt and sensed,” and of course, by what I believe. You’ll find it linked to the photo of the sunset above. Try reading it on the docks at the marina at dusk, and let me know what you think.

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Copyright 2011, The Tybee Times; 2012, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel