From the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, Oatland Island was part of a cotton plantation, and the entire island was cleared and used as farmland. The plantation home was not on the island, but the owners - the McQueen family - were made famous in Eugenia Price's 1993 novel, Don Juan McQueen.
The island was privately held until 1927, when it was purchased by the Order of Railway Conductors (ORC), as the location of a new retirement center for the union's members. The Conductors Home opened in November of 1927 and had enough room to house 66 residents. Sadly, it was never filled to capacity, and the dwindling numbers of residents forced the retirement home to close in 1940.
The ORC sold the property to the US Public Health Service in 1941. The conductors home was converted to a research hospital for women and children with syphilis. The hospital closed a few years later, in 1945, after penicillin became available (and cured the patients!).
Later that year, the ownership of the property transferred to a different branch of the Public Health Service, the Malaria Control in War Areas (MCWA) division, who converted the building into their Technical Development Laboratory. A year later, in 1946, the MCWA changed its name to the Communicable Disease Center (now known as the Center for Disease Control, or the CDC). At the Oatland lab, the CDC studied insect and airborne diseases, methods of mosquito control, and the use of DDT as a pesticide. The "No-Pest Strip" was invented at the lab, which later led to the development of the flea collar.
In 1973, the CDC moved the Technical Development Laboratory to its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and the property at Oatland Island was declared government surplus. Soon afterward, a local public-school teacher, Mr. Tony Cope, petitioned the government to allow the Savannah-Chatham County school system to use the property as an environmental education center. The federal government agreed, on the condition that the property be held jointly with the public-school system for 30 years. If the educational mission was still alive after the 30-year period, the property would be fully transferred to the school system. In August of 1974, Oatland Island Education Center opened to the public.
The Welcome Center at Oatland Island is housed in the original Conductor's Home built in 1927, and many of the smaller buildings throughout the property were built during the CDC days in the 50's and 60's. In 2004, the property was officially transferred to the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Then in 2007 the Center's name was changed to Oatland Island Wildlife Center. Starting in 2009, the Welcome Center was completely renovated, creating more offices, classrooms and a veterinary clinic and was reopened to the public in 2011.
On May 15th, 2023, the main building was renamed the Tony Cope Education and Visitors Center after Oatland's founder and advocate for environmental studies.
In 2024, Oatland Island Wildlife Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary of welcoming school children and visitors from around the world.