There has been a lot of talk over the years about lowering the levee in Augusta in order to once again connect the downtown area to the Savannah River.
The levee, which was originally constructed between 1913 and 1918, came as a result of a string of severe floods in Augusta in 1888, 1902, 1908, 1912 and 1913.
“On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1888, the Savannah River began to rise due to incessant heavy rainfall,” according to the book, “Augusta Surviving Disaster” by Misty Tilson. “Water inundated the city and even the banks of the Augusta Canal gave way. The water finally came to a standstill on Sept. 11 and began to fall. The destruction was estimated at $1 million. Unfortunately, property damage was not the only loss the city suffered. Ten people drowned during the flood.”
About 20 years later, another significant flood hit Augusta in 1908.
“The hotels, department stores, newspapers, telegraph offices and banking institutions concentrated on Broad Street and the principle business area between Sixth and 10th streets were all flooded,” Tilson wrote. “Six thousand people were left essentially homeless, without clothing or food. Floodwater covered 25 square miles. Of the the five bridges that cross the river, a railroad and a footbridge were destroyed. The others were so damaged that they were unfit for travel for several days.”
Although the Augusta City Council discussed flood protection after the 1888 disaster, Augusta officials procrastinated, according to the book, “Yesterday’s Augusta” by A. Ray Rowland and Helen Callahan.
“A bond referendum for construction of a levee was sought only after the 1908 flood, which took 18 lives and destroyed property valued at more than $1.5 million,” according to “Yesterday’s Augusta.” “Even then, many Augustans bitterly opposed a city-wide bond issue of $1 million. Another high water in 1912 ended the dispute.”
Once the flood of 1912 hit Augusta, residents and community leaders knew something had to be done to protect the city.
“For two consecutive years, Augusta suffered from flood damage,” Tilson wrote. “In 1912, the Savannah River began to rise once again on March 16. In 1913, almost a year to the day, on March 15, Augustans were once again fighting water. The 1913 flood was not as severe as the one of 1912… The 1913 flood mainly affected the northeastern part of the city.”
In 1913, residential areas near the Savannah River along Reynolds and Jones streets and the Market Street area were the hardest hit. The swift current from the flood toppled some houses completely off their foundation in the lower parts of the city, Tilson wrote.
“During the 1913 flood, Augusta began to resemble Venice, Italy,” Tilson wrote. “Many people took to the water-covered streets in boats as the driest travel alternative.”
By the time the 1913 flood hit, construction of the levee was already underway.
“Extending from the head gates of the Augusta Canal to Butler Creek, the levee was completed in 1915 at the cost of $3 million, a fourth of which was financed by a federal grant,” according to “Yesterday’s Augusta.” “In 1928, the levee was strengthened and lengthened.”
But the levee still failed in 1929 during one of Augusta’s worst floods on record.
“The system could not cope with the monster 46 foot flood of 1929,” the late local historian and author Edward Cashin wrote in his book, “The Brightest Arm of the Savannah.” “The levee broke behind the Goodale House on Sand Bar Ferry Road and water backed into the city, covering a hundred residential blocks.”
Commissioner W.H. Wise opened the gates at Bulter Creek to let the water out, and when that was not enough, contractor W.F. Bowe dynamited a section of the lower levee, releasing water trapped behind the levee, Cashin wrote.
Then-Mayor William Bell urged residents to flee to the Hill area.
“The floodwater in September of 1929 was very heavy,” Tilson wrote. “The water caused a manageable breach in the levee about five miles below Augusta. The city cemetery and the African-American cemetery closed to burial purposes for over a week as backwater covered them with several feet of water.”
The water even reached the top of the Fifth Street Bridge and it was partially washed away, Tilson wrote.
“Concerned citizens positioned railroad cars on the Southern Railroad Bridge to keep the floodwater from washing it away,” Tilson wrote. “During the 1929 flood, the North Augusta Bridge closed when the wooden approach on the South Carolina side was damaged. The North Augusta Bridge remained closed for two weeks.”
As a result of the flooding in the downtown neighborhoods, more than 1,000 people took up residence at the then-Forrest Ricker Hotel and the Bon-Air Hotel. People also huddled in the courthouse, Tilson wrote.
The Augusta Fire Department worked through the night to help evacuate people in the city, Cashin wrote.
“The river crested at just over 45 feet, tore away a span of the railroad bridge at Sixth Street and with it five loaded coal cars placed on the bridge for stabilization,” Cashin wrote. “Dangerous slides occurred in the levee banks and water in town reached the Union Station.”
As a result of the numerous floods in Augusta, the levee was enlarged from 1936 until 1940 with assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers. By 1954, the corps finished Clarks Hill Dam, now known as Thurmond Dam, to control the Savannah River’s flow from Augusta to Savannah, according to The Augusta Chronicle’s archives.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that former U.S. Rep. Doug Barnard dared to introduce and push through federal legislation allowing the breaches in the levee, making the Riverwalk in downtown Augusta possible.
That was no small feat.
Since that time, there have been occasional discussions by local groups and community leaders about possibly removing the levee, but none of those ideas have materialized because such a plan would literally require an act of Congress.
In 2013, former Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason even proposed dropping the levee approximately 18 feet between 13th and Fifth streets and extending the Augusta Common to the Savannah River during his campaign for mayor.
But Mason lost the election to Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis and the almost 100-year-old levee still stands.
Instead of tearing down the levee, city leaders are currently supporting a plan to extend the Augusta Common to the Savannah River.
The plan proposes to extend the Common across Reynolds Street to the levee, where a gradual incline would form the new plaza and “river destination center.”
The expansion would basically create a riverfront plaza that would visibly erase the barrier currently created by the existing levee.
If this plan is implemented, the Augusta levee will clearly continue to be a part of this city’s long history with the Savannah River.