Port of Darien

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Matthew Decker as part of his SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

The Port of Darien historical marker was dedicated on January 25, 2003. View the Port of Darien historical marker listing.

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1. Port of Darien historical marker text, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

2. Original map of the town of Darien, 1806. Courtesy of Waterfront Wine & Gourmet.

3. The Port of Darien with a Timber Schooner, 1870. Courtesy of the McIntosh Art Association.

4. The Darien Waterfront, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

5. The Port of Darien, 1870. Courtesy of the McIntosh Art Association.

6. View of the Darien Bluff from the Altamaha River, 1870. Courtesy of the McIntosh Art Association.

7.  Miss Lewis, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

8.  Across the Bridge, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

9.  The Grave Digger at Sunset, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

10.  Spanish Moss Detail at Vernon Square, 2015. Courtesy of Matthew Decker.

The following essay is by SCAD student Matthew Decker, 2015. 

Less than 60 miles south of Savannah, Georgia lies a small town on the Altamaha River called Darien. A town once known for its dominance in the timber trade has become, to many, just another dot on the map. At the beginning of the 20th century, Darien had hit its peak in 1900 with 112.5 million board feet of timber exported. [i] The port would never reach this number again and the timber industry began to decline in the town due to overharvest of trees along the Altamaha and the rise of the railroad elsewhere. By 1916 Darien’s timber industry had ceased. [ii] With the fall of the timber industry, many chose to leave Darien, cutting the population nearly in half by 1930, but many of those who chose to stay took up another profession: fishing. Similar to timber, the story of commercial fishing in Darien includes growth and decline, and today Darien’s shrimping industry seeks to reinvent itself to serve a contemporary demand for sustainability.

During its beginnings in early 20th century Darien, fishing was mainly a profession pursued by African-American inhabitants of the town. Later, in the years following World War II, commercial fishing became a trade practiced by a diverse population. [iii] The availability of manufactured ice and the construction of the railroad in the 19th and 20th centuries fostered a booming fishing industry in Darien. [iv] Easy refrigeration and land-based transportation allowed the fisherman to ship their product north and maximize profit, which made shrimping an industry that was quite profitable.

Over time, Darien’s commercial fishing industry evolved from its simple beginnings into the largest commercial fleet in Georgia. [v] First, innovations in technology maximized efficiency and profit. When it began, commercial fishing was all done by hand. Trawling, or pulling a net behind a boat, and the development of the diesel engine soon replaced the completely manual method of harvesting products from the sea. Trawling, though it has been adapted throughout the years, is essentially the same method that it has always been. Adaptations have come in the form of the types and sizes of the nets being used, as well as adaptations to conform to new environmental regulations set forth by the government such as Turtle Excluding Devices. [vi]

In addition to improved technology, Darien’s shrimping industry has evolved economically. The life of the modern commercial fisherman has been greatly impacted by the creation of other ways to grow product to fulfill the demand of the public while attempting to lower the price as much as possible. In the commercial shrimping world, this comes in the form of man-made ponds. These ponds are located worldwide, mainly in locations close in proximity to the equator. Shrimp farms are creating lower prices in the market, which is making it difficult for fisherman catching wild product to turn a profit. [vii] The price gaps created between the farm-raised and wild-caught products have decreased the number of commercial shrimpers as well as young people wanting to pursue shrimping as a profession. The amount of work devoted to the profession has become too much to justify the meager profits to available. Most of the remaining boats in Darien are owned by families who have been fishing for generations.

In order to keep the commercial fishing industry in Darien and other small port towns alive, the Georgia Shrimper’s Association has recently created a marketing initiative to promote Georgia’s unique brand of local shrimp. Importantly, the Shrimper’s Association has developed product labels to identify the origin of each catch. Previously, fish was the only form of food product where labeling was not already a requirement. [viii] Now, any shrimp purchased in Georgia will have the origin of the product on the packaging. Another problem for Georgia shrimpers was that many restaurant vendors, even on the coast, were not selling and serving a local product. This created the need to raise brand awareness and inform diners as to what they were actually eating. Most people vacationing on the coast want to eat fresh, local seafood during their visit and they were actually consuming, in many cases, a farm-raised product. [ix] While this increase in brand awareness has created more local consumption by coastal restaurants, many restaurants still attempt to maximize profit by choosing a farm-raised product.

The town of Darien, which was once considered one of the largest ports on the Atlantic coast, now relies on tourism as its main source of economic health. [x] Though the shrimping industry is still a prominent factor in the town, it is not what it used to be. The life of the commercial shrimper has gone from one of guaranteed profit to a profession pursued mainly because of love and family history. This constant struggle to adapt to the current market has hurt commercial fisherman everywhere. The 2000s saw the commercial shrimp fleet decrease in size by 60 percent and it has never rebounded. [xi] Fishermen must continue to adapt to a changing market to meet their needs and keep quality local products on the market to help preserve the heritage of towns like Darien.

[i] Buddy Sullivan, Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater: The Story of McIntosh County and Sapelo. 4th ed. (Darien, Georgia: McIntosh County Board of Commissioners, 1995), 535.

[ii] Buddy Sullivan, “Darien” New Georgia Encyclopedia.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] John Wallace, Interview with the author.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Sullivan, “Darien.”

[xi] Interview with John Wallace.

Buddy Sullivan. Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater: The Story of McIntosh County and Sapelo. 4th ed. (Darien, GA: McIntosh County Board of Commissioners, 1995).

Buddy Sullivan. “Darien.” New Georgia Encyclopedia.