A Tour Along the Georgia Coast

Georgia Coast

Georgia Coast

Georgia’s Coast stretches approximately 100 miles between historic Savannah — Georgia’s oldest city — to St. Marys, the gateway to Cumberland Island National Seashore. This region features dozens of opportunities for every traveler. From isolated beaches, mysterious swamps, and tranquil marshes; to cobblestone streets, historic forts, and lush plantations; to century-old buildings, dozens of which, are now called home to boutiques and restaurants, there is something here for everyone.

Coastal Georgia has a very rich history, from Native Americans to French and Spanish explorers, to becoming the southernmost of America’s original 13 colonies. The first documented exploration was carried out along the coastline in 1525 by two ships from Puerto Rico under pilot Pedro de Quejos, who had landed in South Carolina in 1521 on a slaving expedition.

The first European settlement in what would become the 13 colonies was made in Georgia in 1526, when Spanish explorer, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, who had landed in South Carolina, moved south with his colonists along Indian Trails. The short-lived colony of San Miguel de Gualdape, thought to be near Sapelo Sound, lasted just a few months before it was abandoned in early 1527.

It is believed that the pirate, Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, sailed along the Georgia coast, plundering other ships, and using Georgia’s meandering rivers, creeks and inlets as hiding places. It is rumored that Blackbeard buried treasure on a Georgia island that was never recovered.

Take a tour through Georgia’s beautiful and history-rich coast.

Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah, Georgia, 1900, by the Detroit Photographic Co.

Savannah – The largest city and the county seat of Chatham County, Georgia, Savannah was established in 1733 and was the first colonial and state capital of Georgia.

Savannah Historic District – A National Historic Landmark, this district is significant for its distinctive grid plan as well as its 18th and 19th-century architecture. The district encompasses the original town plan laid out in 1733 by General James E. Oglethorpe, founder of the British colony of Georgia. Today, Savannah retains much of this plan based on divisions also called wards, squares, and “trustee lots.” Most of the original squares remain and are surrounded by fine examples of buildings in the Georgian, Greek Revival, and Gothic styles. Notable buildings include the Owens-Thomas House built in 1818 (Oglethorpe square), the Beaux-Arts style Edmund Molyneux Mansion circa 1917 (Bull Street), the Spencer Woodbridge House built in 1795 (Habersham Street), and the 1853 Gothic Revival Greene House (Madison Square). Important sites associated with the African American community in the district include Beach Institute (East Harris St.), constructed in 1865 as the city’s first black school, and the King-Tisdell Cottage (East Harris St.), the 1896 home of a working-class African American family. The boundaries of the Savannah Historic District are the Savannah River, E. Broad Street, Gwinnett Street, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Self-guided tours of Savannah are available from the Savannah Visitor Center, in the restored Central of Georgia railroad station at 301 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. The visitor center is open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. (912) 944-0455.

savannah victorian district

Victorian district in Savannah, Georgia. Photo by the Historical American Buildings Survey.

Savannah Victorian Historic District – Savannah’s first suburb, this area is located just south of the Savannah Historic District. Originally a parade ground, the extension of street railways in the late 19th century spurred the development of this neighborhood. The wood frame houses dating from the 1870s and 1880s are a mixture of several Victorian styles of architecture. Some of the best examples of these are the Carpenter Box style houses on West Gwinnett Street embellished with ornate brackets and cornices, the Queen Anne style mansion at the corner of Whitaker and Gwinnett, and the imposing Victorian Telfair Hospital on Park Avenue. The boundaries of the Savannah Victorian Historic District are Gwinnett Street, Anderson Street, and building lines just beyond Montgomery Street and Price Street.

Laurel Grove-South Cemetery – This historic cemetery is significant as a visual record of African American history in Savannah. In 1852, fifteen acres of the Laurel Grove Cemetery was set aside for the burial of “free persons of color and slaves.” The cemetery was historically separated from the white Laurel Grove-North Cemetery by what is now Highway 204. Tombstones range from small markers with little or no ornamentation, to monumental markers with elaborately carved figures. Inscriptions on many of the tombstones record African American history not included in written histories of the region. It is located on 37th Street in Savannah.

First Bryan and First African Baptist Churches – In 1788 Andrew Bryan, a former slave, organized one of the earliest black Baptist churches in North America. Bryan began preaching while a slave in Chatham County. In 1788 he purchased his freedom and formed a congregation which was chartered under the name of First Bryan Baptist Church. This congregation was significantly involved in the affairs of the Savannah black community. In 1793 Bryan obtained the lot where the First Bryan Baptist Church (constructed in 1873) now stands. A dispute over doctrine in 1832 caused a schism, resulting in two congregations. The congregations of the First Bryan Baptist Church and the First African Baptist Church, constructed in 1859, are direct descendants of Bryan’s original congregation. First Bryan is at 575 West Bryan Street and First African at 23 Montgomery Street in Savannah.

Fort Pulaski, Georgia by the National Park Service

Fort Pulaski, Georgia by the National Park Service

Fort Pulaski National Monument – Built between 1829 and 1847 on Cockspur Island to protect the river approaches to the city of Savannah, Fort Pulaski was part of America’s ambitious Third-System of coastal fortifications. Featuring walls of solid brick seven and one-half feet thick, the fort was considered impregnable by most military authorities. At the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate forces occupied Fort Pulaski, and early in 1862, Union forces laid siege to it. Using newly developed rifled cannons with superior range and penetrating power, the Federals breached the walls of the fort in a 30-hour bombardment that forced a Confederate surrender. The restored fort stands today as a monument to the power of technology to render previous conceptions of invincibility instantly obsolete. Fort Pulaski National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, is east of Savannah off of US Highway 80. Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information visit the National Park Service website, Fort Pulaski National Monument, or call 912-786-5787.

Wormsloe Plantation – Situated on a forested peninsula surrounded by coastal marshes, Wormsloe Plantation was established in 1737 by Noble Jones one of the first British colonists in the area. The site includes a plantation house built by Jones’ grandson in 1828, a detached library, the ruins of a fortified house, a mile-long drive bordered by large oaks, and Confederate earthworks. Wormsloe was Noble Jones’ country estate where he experimented with his grand passion—horticulture. He protected the cypress and oak forests of his property and never cultivated the land. The surviving ruins of the original house are one of the only remaining examples of fortified houses once common throughout coastal Georgia. Wormsloe Plantation State Historic Site is located 10 miles southeast of Savannah at 7601 Skidway Road, just north of Isle of Hope. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 a.-5:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Admission fee, 912-353-3023.

Isle of Hope – Located in Chatham County, Georgia, and part of the Savannah Metropolitan Statistical Area, this community is one of the most affluent in the state and is well known for its historic plantations and exclusive waterfront properties. Despite its name, this area is not an island. Legends abound of pirates using the island to hide their booty, and generations of children have gone digging for this treasure. Legend also says that French Huguenots used the island as a place of refuge for fleeing persecution. Its population today is about 2,400 people.

Isle of Hope Historic District – 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 located 8 miles southeast of Savannah.

Midway – Situated near Savannah, Brunswick, St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island, Midway’s history dates back to the 18th century when Puritans migrated to St. John’s Parish, Georgia from Dorchester, South Carolina in 1752 and established several settlements including what was later to become the Midway community. Midway is surrounded by wetlands and there are two islands, Colonel’s Island and Dolphin Island. Its population is about 2,100 people.

Midway, Georgia Church & Cemetery

Midway, Georgia Church & Cemetery

Midway Historic District – Once an influential center for political, economic, and religious life, the colonial town of Midway was founded by New England Puritans in 1752. These colonists were strongly in favor of independence from Great Britain, and during the Revolution, the church and most of the buildings in the town were burned by the British. The church was rebuilt in 1792. Also remaining to represent the colonial era of Midway are the historic 1756 cemetery and a segment of the historic “Old Sunbury Road” now a portion of Georgia highway 38. A museum modeled after the houses that once stood in Midway is also located in the district. The Midway Historic District is at the junction of US Highway 17 and Georgia Highway 38. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10:00 am. – 4:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Closed holidays. Admission fee, (912) 884-5837.

Fort Morris – This fortress is one of the few remaining Revolutionary War-era earthwork fortifications in the United States. First fortified in the 1750s, the fort was manned to protect the once-prosperous seaport town of Sunbury. Fort Morris was surrendered to the British on January 9, 1779, the last patriot post to fall in the American Revolution. The Fort Morris State Historic Site is off 1-95 (exit #76). The park and museum are open Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m.- 5:00 p.m. Admission fee. (912) 884-5999.

Darien –  Situated on Georgia’s coast at the mouth of the Altamaha River about 50 miles south of Savannah, a the town of Darien, originally known as New Inverness, was founded in January 1736 by Scottish Highlanders recruited by James Oglethorpe to act as settler-soldiers protecting the frontiers of Georgia from the Spanish in Florida, the French in the Alabama basin and their Indian allies. The second oldest planned city in Georgia, it is the county seat of McIntosh County a called home to more than 1,800 people.

Fort King George – Fort King George, Georgia’s first colonial British garrison, is located at the mouth of the Altamaha River and contains the brick ruins of its early sawmill operation and a small graveyard. Established in 1721 to stop French and Spanish expansion, the fort was the southernmost outpost of the British Empire in North America. The fort was destroyed by fire in 1726 and rebuilt the following year. The surviving portions of the first sawmill are significant and rare examples of early colonial industry in Georgia. A museum interprets the history of the area, including the early occupation of the site by the Guale Indians. The site also includes a reconstructed blockhouse. Fort King George State Historic Site is south of Darien, on US Highway 17, three miles east of 1-95 (exit 10). Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Admission. (912) 437-4770.

Shrimp boats in Bruswick, Georgia.

Shrimp boats in Brunswick, Georgia.

Brunswick – Located on the southeastern coastline of Georgia, Brunswick is the county seat of Glynn County. British colonists settled the peninsula in 1738 as a buffer to Spanish Florida. It came under provincial control in 1771 and was founded as Brunswick after the German duchy of Brunswick–Lüneburg, the ancestral home of the House of Hanover. Throughout its history, Brunswick has served as an important port city. Though the town’s population is about 15,640, it is part of a larger urban area, that supports more than 100,000 people.

Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation – Located in the marshlands of the Altamaha River, this plantation illustrates more than a century of Georgia’s coastal history and was owned and occupied by the same family from 1804 to 1973. The plantation, originally known as “Broadfield,” became a center for rice cultivation in the 19th century. The plantation house, “Hofwyl House,” was probably constructed by slave labor in the 1850s after the original residence was destroyed. Modeled after a large farmhouse with the original kitchen and a cabin connected to the house by long passages, the interior shows strong Federal influences. One of the more notable features in the house is the ornate marble fireplace in the dining room. The furniture in the house spans several centuries and includes many rare pieces. The plantation grounds are landscaped with large oak trees, most of which are very old. Tabby ruins, likely the foundation of the rice mill, and several surviving outbuildings, including a barn and an ice house, are located on the property. A museum interprets a working a rice plantation and the life of slaves and planters.

The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a Georgia State Historic Site, is between Brunswick and Darien on US Highway 17, one mile east of 1-95, (exit 42). Self-guiding tours are available. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Admission. (912) 264-7333.

Brunswick Old Town Historic District – This district encompasses the site of the colonial British town of Brunswick. Named after the family of King George III of England, it is one of two deepwater ports on the coast of Georgia. The town was laid out in 1771 and retains its original plan known as “Old Town”–a grid plan similar to that of Savannah, Georgia’s other deepwater port. Brunswick contains an outstanding collection of late 19th century residential and public buildings. Among the best examples are the Hazelhurst-Taylor House (Hanover Square), the Mahoney-McGarvey House (Reynolds Street) and the Old City Hall. The town also retains many of its original sidewalks paved with unusual hexagonal stone tiles. Brunswick Old Town Historic District is bounded by 1st, Bay, New Bay, “H” and Cochran Streets. Brunswick is west of Jekyll Island at the junction of 1-95 and US 82.

Jekyll Island Clubhouse, Georgia

Jekyll Island Clubhouse, Georgia

Jekyll Island – Located in Glynn County; Jekyll Island is one of the Sea Islands and one of the Golden Isles of Georgia. The city of Brunswick, Georgia, the Marshes of Glynn, and several other islands, including the larger St. Simons Island, are nearby. Explorers from Spain were the first to make an official claim to Jekyll Island in 1510, giving it the name Isla De Ballenas (Whale Island) and later Juan Ponce de León served as the civil governor of this and Spain’s other claimed North American territories. In 1562 French explorer Jean Ribault claimed the island for France and renamed the island Ille de la Somme. Ribault later surrendered to the Spanish and was executed, an event that began a conflict between the two countries along the Florida coasts. After his army swiftly defeated the French, Philip II of Spain immediately had a colony established on Jekyll. Today, Jekyll Island is one of only four Georgia barrier islands that feature a paved causeway to access the island by car. It features eight miles of wide, flat beaches on its east shore with sand packed hard enough for easy walking or biking. About 800 people call the island home.

Jekyll Island Historic District – A National Historic Landmark administered by the state of Georgia, is situated on the southeast side of Jekyll Island. Occupied by the Guale Indians who called the area Ospo, the island was a popular hunting and fishing site. General James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, maintained an outpost on the island, and a plantation was established by one of his officers, Major William Horton. In 1794 a French family, the du Bignons, bought the island. They retained possession until 1886 when the island was sold to the newly formed “Jekyll Island Club.” Considered to be the most exclusive social club in the United States, the Jekyll Island Club had a limit of 100 members, among them the Astors, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, Morgans, and McCormicks and was laid out by prominent landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland. A clubhouse was built on the island and members constructed private “cottages”– enormous residences designed to house entire families with staff. The club was open for the post-Christmas season when many families came down from Newport and New York to relax and enjoy the “country life.” In 1942 the U.S. government ordered the area evacuated. The state of Georgia purchased the island from the club in 1947 and turned it into a state park. Most of the cottages have been preserved and are open to the public. Among them are San Souci, owned in part by J.P, Morgan and one of the first condominiums in the U.S.; Indian Mound, the twenty-five room home of the Rockefeller family; the Goodyear Cottage completed in 1906 from designs by the firm of Carrére and Hastings; Crane Cottage, circa 1917, the largest and most lavish of the cottages; the original Club House, a wood and brick Victorian structure with towers and manicured lawns; and Faith Chapel, built in 1904 in the Gothic style with copies of the Notre Dame de Paris gargoyles. The chapel also has a large signed Tiffany stained glass window. The historic district s between Riverview Drive and Old Village Boulevard on Jekyll Island. The Club House is now a fully restored hotel open to the public. The island can be reached off of US 17 and Jekyll Island Road, southeast of Brunswick.

St. Simons Island Light, Georgia

St. Simons Island Light, Georgia

St. Simons – Located on St. Simons Island in Glynn County, Georgia, the community and the island are commonly considered to be one location, known simply as “St. Simons Island”, or locally as “The Island”. St. Simons Island is one of Georgia’s renowned Golden Isles (along with Sea Island, Jekyll Island, and privately owned Little St. Simons Island). It is also the largest of the Golden Isles. The Island was the northern boundary of the tribal and Spanish mission province known as Mocama, which extended southward to the St. Johns River in present-day Florida. Later, the island was cultivated by English colonists for rice and cotton plantations, which were worked by large populations of African slaves, who created the unique Gullah culture. The island, since the early 20th century, has been developed as a resort community. Today it has a population of about 14,500 people.

Hamilton Plantation – Located on St. Simons Island, the remains of this antebellum plantation contain two surviving slave cabins, originally a set of four built before 1833. Among the better-surviving slave cabins in the South, they are made of tabby, a cement consisting of lime, water, and crushed oyster shells. The cabins have built-in windows and a central chimney. James Hamilton Couper, the namesake of the owner and manager of the plantation, was an architect and a builder. He designed and built the cabins to house the slaves who served in the plantation’s main house. Utilizing a duplex plan to house more than one family, the cabins were originally part of a planned community of slave dwellings.

The Hamilton Plantation site and slave cabins are on Arthur J. Moore Drive on the west side of St. Simons Island, 12 miles east of Brunswick. The island can be reached by traveling on US Highway 17 and the Brunswick-St. Simons Causeway.

Fort Frederica today, courtesy Wikipedia

Fort Frederica today, courtesy Wikipedia

Fort Frederica National Monument – Administered by the National Park Service, Fort Frederica is located on St. Simon’s Island and interprets the struggle between Great Britain and Spain for domination of the New World. Fort Frederica was the focus of defense for the fledgling English colony of Georgia. The remains of the fortified settlement, established in 1736 by the founder of Georgia, General James Edward Oglethorpe, include ruins of the fort, barracks, walls, moat, and several houses. The fort was established at a time when Great Britain, France, and Spain all claimed the area. In 1742, a British victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh secured Britain’s hold on Georgia. The battle site is six miles south of Fort Frederica. The fort and town fell into decline after Oglethorpe’s regiment was disbanded in 1749 and a 1758 fire destroyed most of the buildings. Fort Frederica is on St. Simon’s Island, 12 miles from Brunswick. It can be reached by traveling on US 17 and the Brunswick-St. Simons Causeway. A visitors center, just east of the townsite, is open daily 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (912) 638-3639. Admission. 912-638-3639.

St. Marys – St. Marys, one of Georgia’s oldest towns, is in the southeast corner of the state nine miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Historic St. Marys, Georgia offers picturesque streets lined with centuries-old live-oaks and the restorative beauty of waterways and marshes. The city was once called home to pirates, smugglers, and a robust shipping industry. The St. Marys area was first explored in the mid 16th century as part of the settlement of Spanish Florida when nearby St. Augustine, Florida was the established capital. Settlement for Georgians became legal after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The town of St. Mary’s was officially established on November 20, 1787, and was made a United States port of entry on March 2, 1799. After the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves took effect in 1808, St. Marys became, along with Spanish Amelia Island, a center for smuggling especially during the period between 1812-1819 when various rebel groups held Ameilia Island. During the War of 1812, the Battle of Fort Peter occurred nearby along St. Marys River. The British captured the fort and the town, occupying it for about a month. During the Civil War, the United States Navy bombarded the town’s shoreside buildings. In 2012, this quaint seaside city is called home to 17,606 people.

St. Marys Historic District – The historic district encompasses the original grid pattern plan of the town as laid out in 1788. During the late 18th century, St. Marys was a bustling seaport. Historic sites in the district include the “Washington Oak,” the only remaining tree of four oaks planted in 1799 on the day George Washington was buried and the 1808 Presbyterian Church, famous for its historic bell, which was cast by Paul and Joseph Warren Revere. The St. Mary’s Historic District is roughly bounded by Waterfront Road, Norris, Alexander, and the Oak Grove Cemetery. For more information contact the Orange Hall Welcome Center, Osborne and Conyers Streets. (912) 882-4000 or l-800-868-8687.

Historic Churches – St. Marys is prolific in historic churches of virtually all denominations. Rich in the history, see the Christ Church Historic Episcopal Chapel, whose original chapel was burned during the Civil War, located at 305 Wheeler St.; the First Presbyterian Church, Georgia’s oldest church in continuous use, at 100 Conyers St.; Our Lady Star of the Sea Historic Catholic Chapel – the oldest masonry building in Georgia at 201 Osborne St.; and St. Marys United Methodist Historic Chapel, which was occupied during the Civil War by Union soldiers, located at 105 E. Conyers St.

McIntosh Sugar Mill Tabby Ruins – Tabby, a building material unique to the area, is made of oyster shells, sand, and water. The mill was built in 1826 and is the largest and best preserved of all tabby remains in the Southeast. Its rooms, which were devoted to the grinding, boiling and processing of cane for sugar products, are still intact. The building burned in the mid-1800’s and was never rebuilt. The ruins are one of the oldest industrial sites of Georgia. Located off of Charlie Smith Sr. Hwy, just left of Kings Bay Road and the Stimpson Gate of Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, 3600 Charlie Smith Sr. Hwy, 912-729-5600.

The ruins of the Carnegie Dungeness Mansion, Cumberland Island, Georgia by the National Park Service

The ruins of the Carnegie Dungeness Mansion, Cumberland Island, Georgia by the National Park Service

Cumberland Island – St Marys is the gateway to Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. Here, pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes whisper the stories of both man and nature. Natives, missionaries, enslaved African Americans and Wealthy Industrialists all walked here. Cumberland Island is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in along the Atlantic coast. The island has one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the United States and one of the largest wilderness areas in a National Seashore on the east coast. Located seven miles east of St. Marys, Cumberland Island and is only accessible by boat. A concession-operated passenger-only ferry departs from downtown St. Marys. Reservations are strongly encouraged and passengers must be present 30 minutes prior to departure. Admission fee, ferry fee, and additional fees for camping and interpretive programs.

The Dungeness Historic District encompasses historic resources from several periods including a prehistoric shell midden on which later mansions were constructed; a wharf, thought to be the site of the early Spanish mission of San Pedro, an historic cemetery, an early 19th century house constructed of tabby, a cement made of lime, water, and crushed oyster shells, and the ruins of Dungeness Mansion, constructed on the site of the earlier Miner residence.

The Stafford Plantation Historic District includes the 1901 Stafford House, built for William Coleman Carnegie near the site of the Stafford plantation cemetery.

Plum Orchard Historic District has a small cemetery; ruins of an early 19th-century plantation home; and Plum Orchard Mansion, constructed in 1898 for George Lauder Carnegie and designed by Boston architects Peabody and Stearns.

The High Point-Half Moon Bluff Historic District is associated with the African American experience from slaves to freedmen to property owners and the development of the Island as a resort area after the Civil War. The district is made up of two complexes of buildings located at the northern end of Cumberland Island. The first, Half Moon Bluff is a small village of simple wood frame buildings. Half Moon Bluff was settled by former slaves from plantations on Cumberland Island. As the land was divided over the years, African Americans continued to purchase parcels. Constructed in 1937, the First African Baptist Church of Cumberland Island is significant as a center of religious and educational life for the community.

The High Point District was originally developed as a hotel and resort complex in 1880. Located in the district are a historic hotel and accompanying outbuildings. The two areas have been historically linked through economic need — the village of Half Moon Bluff provided the hotel complex at High Point with labor.

Steamboats in the Savannah River, Georgia

Steamboats in the Savannah River, Georgia

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2018.

Also See:

Haunted Historic Sites in Savannah, Georgia You Must Visit

Georgia (main page)

Georgia Photo Gallery

Sources:

Georgia Encyclopedia

National Park Service

Wikipedia

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