Water Tower and Guest Cottage

History of St. Helena Island

The origin of the name unknown, St. Helena Island can be found in land records dating back from 1843 when it was part of the estate of the late Annapolitan Major Richard I. Jones. The island and its surrounding waters are  bits of an enigma, their completely unique creation having been a product of the departure of the last ice age 10,000 or so years ago. The result has been an incomparable private and safe destination since local native American tribes used the island as a safe haven from the waring Susquehannock tribe.


Paul Burnett, an attorney and insurance executive from Baltimore, purchased the island in the late 1920s and development of the island began in 1929. A caretaker’s home and guest cottage were built on the island’s southwestern corner, a small hospital complex on the southeastern corner, and the main house and water tower on the prominent northern sector. The main island residence, the “Cottage” mansion, was modeled after the Homewood House on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, a Federal-style home built in 1801 by Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Bay schooners were commissioned to carry the tons of bricks necessary to build the Cottage as the centerpiece of the island, occupying the crest of St. Helena Island.

Each summer from 1936-1943, Burnett brought children affected by polio to the island for recuperation at the Burnett Hospital for Crippled Children, who were cared for by physicians, nurses, cooks, and staff.

In 1944, the island was sold to Eugene Raney, who leased several buildings, one of which would become a restaurant, to John Emory. During this period, St. Helena was recognized for its swanky island club, boasting a casino and regularly hosting members of Congress, judges, and other prominent citizens. The club was also home to several slot machines and in 1951, the slot machines were seized in a police raid. Both Raney and Emory were taken into custody and later convicted of slot-machine violations.

The island was subdivided into two properties and sold in 1956 with the Estate parcel passing through several owners. In September 1961, the island mansion was nearly lost to a fire started by malfunctioning electrical equipment. The fire was brought under control by nearly 100 firemen rushed to the island by private boats.

In the late 1990s, controversy surrounded St. Helena Island when the Estate was purchased and promoted as a wedding and event center. After a great deal of opposition from neighbors, a vote was passed in November 1999 opposing all commercial activity on the island. The Estate parcel was sold to the current owners in 2001 while the caretaker’s home and hospital complex parcel of the island has been owned and occupied by the same owners for more than 50 years.