Eleanor Torrey West, who devoted her life to preserving Ossabaw Island, a 26,000 acre legacy off the coast of Georgia that is so large, lush, and varied that visitors can stroll among hardwood forests, palm trees, and saltwater swamps, died on Jan. at their home in Savannah. She was 108 years old.
Her death was confirmed by her grandson, Beryl Gilothwest.
Mrs. West was a pioneer in protecting the environment, and adopted it long before most Americans. In the 1960s, for example, she turned down lucrative offers from developers and sold the island to the State of Georgia for $ 8 million, half of the island’s estimated value.
In a statement released after her death, former President Jimmy Carter, who met Mrs. West as Governor of Georgia in the 1970s, praised her “persistent determination to preserve Ossabaw for future generations,” even if it meant “giving up the fortune.” “She could have seen it from its development. “
Ossabaw, the third largest barrier island in Georgia, was the first property protected under the Heritage Trust Act in 1978, established in 1975 to protect natural areas from development and provide public access for recreation and research.
“She knew it belonged to the people when it was passed on to the state,” Gilothwest said. “She and others have had the opportunity to put public pressure on them to make sure they keep their promise to protect the island.”
While Ms. West wanted to share the wonders of Ossabaw with others, she did not want to build airstrips or draw a ferry route to take visitors there. According to the Ossabaw Island Foundation, the island is the only cultural heritage in the state that prohibits many recreational activities.
“Whatever happens to one of these large islands affects the other islands,” Ms. West said at a conference on the protection of the Georgian wetlands in 1968, “and consequently the entire coast of Georgia and possibly the east coast of the United States.”
Ms. West lived on the island, which is only accessible by boat, until she was 103 and needed a full-time caretaker.
The island is home to a wide variety of birds, sea turtles, and even wild boar that were believed to have been introduced by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Mrs. West kept some of the animals as pets, including Lucky, who was injured as a piglet by a hawk. She nursed him back to health in her laundry room.
“They used to go for walks around the island,” said Gilothwest, “and then he lay down on a river bank and she leaned her head on his stomach and read a book.”
Eleanor Ford Torrey, known to her friends as Sandy, was born in Michigan on January 17, 1913, to a family of wealth and privilege. Her mother, Nell Ford Torrey, was an heir and granddaughter of Jean Baptiste Ford, who founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and Wyandotte Chemicals Corporation. Her father, Henry Norton Torrey, was a brain surgeon. During their childhood, the family split time between their home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Savannah. Her parents bought Ossabaw Island as a winter residence.
Mrs. West’s love for Ossabaw was not immediate. On her first visit, she “spat on the floor and vowed never to love this island,” said Elizabeth DuBose, executive director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, in a telephone interview.
But the island grew on her, and she and her brother gave up classes with their tutor to explore the nearly 60 square kilometers of forests, fields and swamps.
Ms. West attended Masters School, a premier graduate school in Dobbs Ferry, NY. After her parents died and her brother died in 1947, she and his children inherited the island in 1959.
Soon after, she returned to Ossabaw with her second husband, Clifford Bateman West, an artist. In 1961 they founded the Ossabaw Island Project, a retreat where artists, scientists and writers could come together to exchange ideas and be inspired by the natural surroundings. The program, which lasted until 1983, drew writers like Ralph Ellison and Margaret Atwood and composers like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, as well as the artist Harry Bertoia.
Another participant, biologist Eugene Odum, had a special influence on Ms. West, her grandson said. He took visitors into the swamp and explained how the stem-like grass gathered fodder for fish so that they could thrive and in turn provide food for the entire coastal region. The country’s development could endanger the entire ecosystem, he would explain.
“I think that had a huge impact on my grandmother’s understanding of the importance of preserving this country,” said Glithowest.
Her marriage to Mr. West ended in divorce, as did her marriage to her first husband, John Shallcross.
In addition to Mr. Gilothwest, three children, Gilian Ford Shallcross, John Post Shallcross and Justin Paynter West, and eight other grandchildren, Mrs. West survived.
Last year, a bill was introduced into state legislation that would have allowed the development of up to 15 acres on each of Georgia’s more than 120 monument reserves. Ms. DuBose of the Ossabaw Island Foundation said the group had urged its partners to oppose the law, which never made it off the committee. Her efforts reflected Ms. West’s decades of struggle to preserve the land.
“We have to consider what has been done in the past,” she wrote in a document describing her vision for the future of Ossabaw, “and we have to try to see the future as a long-term concept before changing the present . I think humans would do well to watch where they step, as they are the only creatures that leave indelible footsteps that run uncontrollably without them. “