Established as a retreat in the 19th century for the elite of Savannah, Isle of Hope provided a refuge from the intense heat and outbreaks of malaria prevalent throughout the summer months. Originally owned by Henry Parker, the land was divided into lots in the 1850s and 1860s. These were sold to prominent Savannah families who built palatial homes along the water. A small African American settlement in the district dates from after the Civil War when freed slaves from Wormsloe Plantation settled in the town. In 1871 a railroad was built connecting Savannah with Isle of Hope and by the early 20th century many residents were living in the town year-round. The historic district encompasses a large area extending back from the Skidaway River. Landscaped with old oak trees covered in Spanish moss, the houses range in style from Greek Revival, Victorian, and Neoclassical to Craftsman Bungalows. Many of the residences also have both formal and informal gardens.
Isle of Hope is an island surrounded on all sides by water at high tide. Early maps referred to in French as “L’Isle Desperance”. Legends abound of pirates using the island to hide their booty, and generations of children have gone digging for this treasure.
In the early 20th century, with better transportation options, the summer resort became the year-round home of many, and the terrapin farm at Barbee’s Pavilion became world-famous for the export of terrapins for stew, including to the major restaurants of New York City and to the Czar of Russia. It was also the destination of race car drivers from around the world for the International Grand Prix races.
The Isle of Hope United Methodist Church is another historic location on the island. Built before the Civil War, the property was used by the Confederates as an encampment and the church building as a hospital. During their recuperation, soldiers carved their initials into the pews, which they used for makeshift beds. When the old church burned down during its 1984 renovation, the pews had been removed and were saved. 33 Confederate soldiers are buried in the churchyard.
The island’s beauty and history has attracted a number of Hollywood film productions, including the Oscar-winning Glory, the original Cape Fear, The Last of the Belles, Forrest Gump, and The Last Song.