Romance abounds on barrier island beaches. The pounding of the surf is like a beating heart. The sunrise from the east is like new love dawning. Quiet moments on the sand rejuvenate and rekindle dormant, forgotten, or just time burdened feelings.
But true romance, the romance of legend, can be found in a tale of Georgia’s Saint Simons Island. It is both shocking and sweet, heartbreaking and enlightening.
After a breakfast buffet at the oceanfront dining room at the famed King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, it’s a short drive or a flat, easy seven mile bike ride to Christ Church, on the road to historic Fort Frederica.
Christ Church has a history as distinctive as its beautiful grounds and sanctuary. The original Christ Church was built in 1820.
From 1736 to 1766, its early congregations were led by, among others, Charles and John Wesley, before their return to England and the advent of Methodism. A museum of their short sojourn can be found at Epworth-by-the-Sea, on historic Gascoigne Bluff, which plays prominently in the tale.
Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, a wealthy industrialist from Connecticut, became a major landholder on Saint Simons Island in those times. Dodge made untold riches harvesting the mighty southern oaks that populated the island’s forests. His lumber works, shipbuilding enterprises and ship’s landings were at Gascoigne Bluff on the Frederica River. The original Christ Church was built to provide a place of worship for the small city of lumber workers, seamen, shipwrights and their families in the Dodge enterprise.
During the Civil War, however, Union troops took over the old church, bivouacked their men on the lawns and used the inside of the church as stables for the officer’s horses. The decimated and abandoned church remained a shambles well after the “Late Unpleasantness Between the States” had ended.
At about that time, the young scion of the family, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Junior had decided that he was neither lumberjack nor shipbuilder.
Determined to enter the clergy, he was sent back to Connecticut to study divinity at Yale. It was there that the books took a back seat to romance, and young Dodge became enamored of a young woman named Ellen Dodge. They fell deeply in love, and pledged to marry.
Dodge Junior returned home to secure his father’s blessing to marry the young woman with the awkwardly coincidental last name, and was shocked to learn that she was actually a first cousin. They were accordingly forbidden to wed.
This was a judgment that the young lovers could not accept, claiming their love innocent and above any taboo. With money no object, the couple eloped and embarked on a lavish, honeymoon tour of the most exotic extremes of the world. They were abroad for nearly three years of excitement, wonder and bliss.
Tragically, while in India, Ellen took sick with cholera. Anson was by her bedside day and night. She begged him never to leave her side, and he promised he would always be beside her.
Ellen died in India, little more than a child. In his grief, Anson honored his pledge, and brought her body home to Saint Simon’s Island in 1884, and to Christ Church, which he rebuilt with loving care…the church that sits today on the road to Frederica. True to his word, he had her sarcophagus housed under the altar that he preached from every Sunday, her everlong companion.
Years passed, and Anson, still a young man in his early thirties, met Anna Gould, granddaughter of James Gould, who built the first Saint Simon’s lighthouse. They married in 1890 and spent many happy years together.
Anson died suddenly in 1898 at only thirty eight years of age. His widow Anna had the remains of his first wife, Ellen, reburied next to her husband, a testament of her own love for him that she honored his promise. Today, the old cemetery at Christ Church includes a Phelps-Dodge family plot where Anson Greene Phelps Dodge Junior lays side-by-side with the two loves of his life, Ellen and Anna.