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Off Georgia, One Finds Three Tourist Magnets in One

Seaside communities attract beach-lovers, mountains lure admirers of the outdoors, and so forth. But there's one beautiful spot in America that's a huge draw to three quite distinct types of tourists.

History-lovers flock to a barrier island off the Atlantic coast of the southern state of Georgia to inspect old millionaires' palaces. Dreamy beaches and lush golf courses appeal to the wealthy jet set. And the 65 percent of the island that by law must remain undeveloped brings in wildlife enthusiasts.

In the 1700s, British General James Oglethorpe named the verdant island for his patron, Sir Joseph Jekyll, and turned it over to his friends.

Jekyll Island was a cotton plantation until the 1880s, when, far to the north in New York City, rich industrialists were smoking their cigars at the Union Club, perhaps the richest, most exclusive, club in the world.

How rich? Asked by a fellow member how much money it would take to purchase a yacht like his Corsair Two, John Pierpont Morgan huffed, "If you have to ask, you have no business with a yacht."

Snooping journalists assailed these aristocrats relentlessly, calling them robber barons because of the often cut-throat, sometimes criminal brand of capitalism many of them practiced. Union Club members needed a refuge, and they found it on Jekyll Island, which they bought in its entirety and turned into their winter playground.

But the Great Depression, anti-trust legislation, and the new federal income tax of the 1930s reversed the fortunes of many Union Club members. They simply abandoned their Jekyll Island cottages, which were, of course, fabulous mansions. In 1947 the state of Georgia bought the island to keep the cottages out of the hands of looters. Some of the mansions are now historical museums. Golf courses attract a wealthier clientele. And the vast wildlife sanctuary offers tours and so-called turtle walks.

As it was a century ago, this is Jekyll's busiest time of year, when the balmy island is invaded by a human kind of migratory bird: wintertime visitors from the frigid north that everyone calls "snowbirds."