St. Marys has been described at different times over the centuries as a bustling seaport, a sleepy tourist resting place, or a strategic military location.
The city of St. Marys is located on the St. Marys River, within six-miles of the Atlantic Ocean, making it an important port town for the shrimping industry.
Close to the Georgia-Florida state line (on Route 40, off Interstate 95), the historic city is located on the St. Marys River, which represents the border between Georgia and Florida for its entire length. St. Marys served as Camden County’s seat from 1869 until 1923. Today many of its residents earn their livelihood by catering to the tourists who visit Cumberland Island National Seashore and the St. Marys National Historic District, which includes beautiful nineteenth-century buildings, offices, and shops and the Oak Grove Cemetery. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population is 17,121.
Established on the site of an abandoned Timucuan Indian village, Tlathlothlaguphta, St. Marys sits on land confiscated from two brothers of royal governor James Wright. Their Royalist sympathies resulted in their banishment after the American Revolution (1775-83) and the loss of their huge estates.
The First Presbyterian Church of St. Marys is the oldest Presbyterian church building in the state of Georgia. It is also the oldest building in Georgia that has been in continuous use as a church since its erection in 1808.
The history of the town’s name is not clear. Accounts differ regarding the origin of the name itself—some say it is named after the St. Marys River, while others say it comes from a seventeenth-century Spanish mission, Santa Maria, on nearby Amelia Island, Florida. (Histories also differ regarding whether the new town was known as St. Patrick’s for a few years—until 1792—or whether that name actually referred to another town close by.) After the departure of its royalist owners, the land belonged to Jacob Weed, an early planter and state legislator. Weed sold 1,672 acres along the St. Marys River to nineteen other men, and the twenty laid out the new town together in 1788. Early maps show the streets were 100 feet wide, interspersed with two 16-acre public squares. Each one of the twenty founders was authorized to use the squares and received a mixture of good, marshy land in his purchase.
Soon after the town was laid out, the area became home to Acadian refugees (later called Cajuns). The French-speaking Acadians, having been deported from Canada by the British, had settled in many places, including the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Some fled Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave rebellion there, arriving in St. Marys in 1791. St. Marys was established by an act of the state legislature on December 5, 1792. It was not officially incorporated, however, until November 1802.
The strategic location of St. Marys on the Atlantic Coast just above Florida led to its involvement in several of the major military conflicts in U.S.history. Troops were sent from New York to the area during the American Revolution. It was captured by the British during the War of 1812 (1812-15), and Union gunboats shelled its waterfront buildings during the Civil War (1861-65). Its military connections have continued with the establishment of Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. (Cooksey, Elizabeth B. “St. Marys.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 03 September 2013. Web. 04 October 2013.)
Paddling on the St. Marys River, along the marshes and through the harbor, it is easy to imagine St. Marys as it was all those years ago. Kayakers are able to follow in the wake of the ancient Native Americans who paddled these same waters; and paddlers still share the water with merchant ships — as well as warships. Dolphins and Otters are common sights in the St. Marys, as are shrimp boats — and an occasional nuclear submarine at the mouth of the river as it heads out or returns from patrol. The marinas on the east and west sides of the St. Marys harbor are favorite spots of visiting manatees, and make for ideal postcard photos of sunrises and sunsets as seen from the cockpit of a kayak.
The St. Marys waterfront is the launching and landing point for several kayak outings. The Harbor Tour, one of our most popular trips, is a 2-hour, 4-mile loop featuring waterfront scenery, salt marsh and a chance to see resident River Otters. Rose’s Bluff is a slightly longer course that takes paddlers through a narrow gap in the marsh and into the Bells River in Florida. The 3-hour, 6-mile route carries paddlers past steep bluffs as it curves back around to the St. Marys River. On outgoing tides, paddlers with open water kayaking experience are able to paddle from St. Marys to the southern end of Cumberland Island. The route crosses Cumberland Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and must be carefully planned with the tides. Tidal currents in the Cumberland Sound are swift and dangerous; and paddlers attempting this trip should have experience with open water rescues.