Back in 1773, the American naturalist and botanist, William Bartram, first visited what was then described as the “village of Augusta” and immediately marveled at the power of the Savannah River.
“The site of Augusta is perhaps the most delightful and eligible of any in Georgia for a city,” Bartram wrote, describing the city as “an extensive level plain on the banks of a fine navigable river.”
The Savannah River was the key to the town’s success, Bartram stated.
“Augusta, thus seated at the head of navigation, and just below the conflux of several of its most considerable branches, without a competitor, commands the trade and commerce of vast fruitful regions above it, and from every side to a great distance,” Bartram wrote. “I do not hesitate to pronounce, as my opinion, that it will very soon become the metropolis of Georgia.”
While Augusta was first founded as a settlement in 1735 by British General James Oglethorpe, George Walton, who served on Augusta’s first commission government in 1780, was one of the first to try to channel the power of the mighty Savannah River.
“As Superior Court judge, he fretted over the welfare of Augusta like an anxious parent,” the late local historian and author Edward Cashin wrote in his book, “The Brightest Arm of the Savannah.”
After Walton became governor of Georgia, he later led a delegation that welcomed President George Washington to Augusta in 1791.
“Both men were ardent advocates for river improvement and canal building as a means of facilitating commerce and fostering union,” Cashin wrote. “Washington foresaw a centrally planned system of canals and rivers that would go everywhere, bringing navigation almost to every man’s door.”
By 1799, Walton told a Richmond County Grand Jury, “There is no stream in our country equal to the Savannah River.”
The river, along with Augusta’s connection to “the seaport town of Savannah,” placed the city in a prime position, Walton said.
“I do believe, therefore, with confidence from the impressions I have received that the western trade will pass through this place, and produce a prosperity in its surpassing all present expectation,” he stated. “And we will have the happiness of knowing and experiencing that as much health is enjoyed in it as in any town of the United States of its numbers.”
Walton was correct.
For the first 100 years after the founding of the city in 1735, Augusta’s claim to fame had been as a tobacco and cotton distribution center, Cashin wrote.
“The availability of easy water transportation helped to make Augusta one of the world’s largest inland cotton centers,” Cashin wrote in his book.
The entire state of Georgia quickly began to take notice of Augusta as a major economic engine.
By 1815, the Georgia Legislature enacted a bill providing funds for removing obstructions in the Savannah River from Augusta to a small town, then known as Petersburg at the mouth of the Broad River.
Several years later, enough obstructions were removed from the river to allow “Petersburg boats” 60 to 80 feet long, seven feet wide and shallow-drafted, to navigate from Broad River to Augusta.
“The pilot, or patroon, and his six-man crew risked, and sometimes lost their lives, shooting the rapids they called the ‘Ring Jaw’ just below Petersburg,” Cashin wrote. “They would have smooth waters for two or three miles, then more shoals with names like Garden Shoals, Little River Shoals, Scott’s Shoals, Blue Jacket and Whirligig.
At the smooth stretches between the shoals, the boats would stop at plantation docks along the way to pick up cotton, the patroon blowing a trumpet-sounding horn to signal his coming. They could carry as much as 60 bales of cotton, three tiers high, together with corn, oats, barrel staves, and anything else the people along the way wanted to send to Augusta.”
While the river was crucial to Augusta’s success, it wasn’t an easy journey for the Petersburg boats.
“The long pull upriver was a nightmare, three men on each side had to push on poles to propel the craft, their shoulders would become bruised and bloody from pressing on the butt-end of the pole,” Cashin wrote. “Even so, the boats could carry as much as 18,000 pounds of cargo, mostly farm and household commodities. It took three days to reach Petersburg from Augusta.”
Around the same time, the Erie Canal in New York was completed in 1825 and its success began to spark interest in connecting cities through waterways.
That same year, Georgia Gov. George Troup proposed that the state should sponsor a canal system that would link the Tennessee River, not only with the Savannah, but also the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee rivers.
It was an unrealistic vision, but it began the canal conversation in Georgia.
And after the national depression of 1837, Cashin wrote that business declined in Georgia as well as all over the country.
“Smaller Georgia towns became deserted as people moved west to seek their fortunes in Alabama, Mississippi or the newly independent nation of Texas,” he wrote. “If the depression continued, there was real danger that Augusta would become as deserted as Petersburg upriver and nearby Wrightsborough.”
As a result of the growing economic pressures, Augusta leaders decided to look to the northern city of Lowell, Mass. for inspiration.
At the time, Lowell was the first city to successfully use waterpower for heavy industry.
Col. Henry Cumming — son of Augusta’s first mayor, Thomas Cumming — recommended that a canal be constructed for the purpose of providing hydropower for textile factories and creating a plentiful supply of water for the city, according to information from the Savannah Rapids Regional Visitor Center.
Cumming and John King, the president of the Georgia Railroad Bank, were early advocates of the canal project, while a local banker, William D’Antignac, came up with a financial arrangement that made the canal possible.
By April 1845, the Augusta Canal Company was formed as a publicly owned corporation to handle the financing and construction of Augusta’s canal system.
The City Council of Augusta decided to issue bonds worth $100,000 that would be paid off with a special “canal tax.”
Four local institutions agreed to put up seed money of $1,000 each: the Bank of Augusta, the Georgia Railroad Bank, the Augusta Insurance and Banking Company and the Bank of Brunswick.
Unfortunately, the $100,000 estimate of what the canal would cost proved “woefully short of the mark,” Cashin wrote.
As a result, taxpayers received stock in the Augusta Canal Company in proportion to the amount of taxes paid, according to the Savannah Rapids Visitor Information Center.
However, not everyone was pleased at being forced to become a stockholder, and some residents joined a lawsuit challenging the city’s right to impose the tax.
In March of 1845, D’Antignac went before interested citizens of Augusta to explain how the canal would be financed, insisting the tax would be minimal, but the benefit to the city would be enormous.
In the end, the city eventually won the lawsuit and construction on the canal began by April of 1845.
It took approximately 18 months for 200 men to complete the first level of the canal and the headgates.
On Nov. 23, 1846, the headgates were opened for the first time and the Augusta Canal was born.
A story in The Augusta Chronicle declared, “A brighter day is dawning for our city.”
It took about three months for the first boat to pass through the canal, but word of Augusta’s success began to travel quickly.
A study undertaken on behalf of the city determined that with 5 feet of water, the Augusta Canal could produce sufficient horsepower to turn two large spindle turbines.
Soon, new factories began developing in the city by 1848 including James Coleman’s Sawmill & Gristmill and the Augusta Manufacturing Company Textile Mill.
Other companies also began projects of their own and the city saw its population nearly double in just six years.
By Sept. 5, 1854, Petersburg boats and barges had transported the following produce through the first level into the basin at 13th Street: 140,000 bales of cotton, 3,184 barrels of flour, 1,286 bushel of corn, 3,556 cords of firewood, 27,700 pounds of bacon, 89 bushels of peas, 1,638 bales of yarn, 226 bushels of wheat, 8 bales of wool, 8 cords of hickory bark, 778,200 feet of timber, 117 casks of manganese, 1,500 hoop shingles and 5,500 laths, according to information from the Savannah Rapids Visitor Information Center.
During the Civil War, the Augusta Canal provided water and power for the two-mile
long Confederate Powder Works. This complex, which operated from 1862 to1865, produced 2,750,000 pounds of gunpowder for the Southern armies.
By 1871, the city council instructed then Augusta Mayor Charles Estes to undertake a new study to enlarge the canal and engineer, Charles Olmstead, was soon hired.
Meanwhile, a new company headed by James Gregg, son of Graniteville Mill founder William Gregg, was prepared to build a factory on the canal.
By August 7, 1871, Olmstead told the city council that enlargement of the canal could be done for $371,610.56.
Another engineer, Byron Holley, designed the dam, headgates and locks and by May of 1872, nearly 400 workers, almost all of them black, labored on the canal, Cashin wrote.
By the end of 1872, one-third of the estimated cost had already been spent.
The following year, Chinese workers came to Augusta to assist in constructing the project.
“By Nov. 15, (1873) about 250 Chinese were on the job,” Cashin wrote. “In addition to the new arrivals, Olmstead used convict labor, mostly black, who wore striped uniforms and were chained together at night. In all, over 400 men worked at the enlargement as the year ended. “
But the public began criticizing the project and its mounting cost that had risen to about$496,000.
“A Boston newspaper took notice of the development and marveled that the new canal would be the largest in the country in volume of water,” Cashin wrote.
Despite some public criticism of the project, Estes was once again elected mayor in 1874.
“In his inaugural address, Estes announced that the enlargement would be completed in 1875; only the bulkhead and the dam remained to be finished under Byron Holley’s supervision,” Cashin wrote. “The stone headgates had seventeen slide gates that could be worked by a single person operating the iron gears. The lock featured mitre-swing gates similar to those on the Erie Canal.”
However, on Nov. 1, 1875, Estes acknowledged that the canal improvements’ cost had risen to about $750,000. He tried to assure citizens that all of the expenses were covered by city bonds and no additional taxes were needed, but the tide was turning on Estes.
The Augusta City Council and a newly elected mayor, John Meyer, called for an investigation into the project’s expenses.
“In the end, the committee had to accept Estes’s statement of direct costs of $725,389,” Cashin wrote, adding that they also included all indirect costs they could uncover. “They arrived at a grand total of $972,883.”
Finally, by the end of the year, the enlargement of the Augusta Canal was completed and the present spillway dam was constructed to meet the high demand for hydropower needed by growing industries.
The dam created a pool and slight diversion that directs water toward the canal gates.
While the project was deemed a success, Estes’ legacy was tarnished by the city council’s investigation.
“Charles Estes was left to wonder whether he was being held responsible for something wrong or given credit for something good,” Cashin wrote.
But the 1875 enlargement of the canal was groundbreaking.
The project left the Augusta Canal much as it is today, nine miles long, 11 feet deep and capable of producing 14,000 horsepower, according to the Savannah Rapids Visitor Information Center.
“The boom years following the enlargement of the canal were the canal’s most productive and in many ways, most exciting,” Cashin wrote. “Robert Spude, a historian working for Historic American Engineering Record, concluded that the Augusta Canal ‘contributed to making Augusta an envied manufacturing center. Indeed, during the 1880’s the canal and the mills along its banks served as examples for the rest of the South.’”
To this day, the Augusta Canal still powers several 19th Century-era textile mill buildings and supplies the city’s water.
There is also still much fascination with the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal by local residents.
In fact, two prominent local businessmen — Donnie Thompson and Andy Jones — recently made a huge investment by purchasing about 460 acres of land directly across from the headgates and dam.
“It is the prettiest view on the Savannah River,” Thompson said, adding he is currently constructing a house on the property. “As I look straight across, I can see the gatehouse. It’s almost hard to believe how beautiful it really is when you are looking at it. It’s gorgeous.”