Canal brought industrial might

Petersburg boats once moved cargo on the Augusta Canal. In its heyday in the mid-1800s, an estimated 25,000 bales of cotton a year traveled the canal.

One of Augusta's most scenic landmarks almost wasn't.


The Augusta Canal, whose hydropower catapulted the city from economic decline into an industrial empire, was conceived in 1844, when leading residents launched a controversial campaign that would change the city forever.

That September, Henry H. Cumming, an officer of Georgia Railroad and Banking Co., teamed with John P. King to finance an engineering study for a proposed seven-mile canal.

John E. Thomson, Georgia Railroad's chief engineer, devised a plan to divert water from the Savannah River seven miles above Augusta, where it would flow downstream into the city. In the winter of 1845, Cumming unveiled his vision for an industrial corridor to compete with larger communities in the Northeast.

In March, the Augusta City Council created a canal commission to oversee the project. Controversy emerged in May 1845, when opposition to its planned route caused the council to re-examine the project. A section from Beaverdam Creek to East Boundary was abandoned in favor of a less expensive route, discharging upstream at Hawk's Gully.

Jim Wylie, a National Park Service consulting historian, described it this way: "But the matter was not settled. Property owners protested, claiming the canal commission reneged on its original plan. Two commissioners agreed; both resigned in protest. Later, one would sue."

The next controversy emerged in Georgia's Legislature when efforts to incorporate Augusta Canal Co. were seen as a plan by the rich to exploit the poor. Subsequent battles evolved over plans to modify the structure, the perceived potential for flooding and the use of city tax dollars to help finance the project.

One lawsuit, challenging the city's authority to build a canal, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the city prevailed.

Contractors began the project in 12 segments, some under way simultaneously. On Nov. 23, 1846, water flowed into the 40-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep canal.

The canal was modeled after a system in Lowell, Mass., where engineers built canals to amplify water power on the Merrimack River near Boston in the early 1800s.

Augusta became known as the "Lowell of the South," with so many industries that the canal became a tourist attraction with manufacturing plants reproduced on postcards.

Augusta Manufacturing Co. was the first to use the new power source. Organized in 1847 by a former mayor, the firm employed 200 workers who produced 32,000 yards of cloth weekly.

In the canal's heyday during the mid-1800s, an estimated 25,000 bales of cotton a year moved along its narrow banks, either by mule-drawn barge or by Petersburg boats -- peculiar, cigar-shaped cargo vessels. The boats were named for Petersburg, a now-defunct city above Augusta at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah rivers. The town's remains are beneath Thurmond Lake.

The canal and its dozens of industries helped move the South away from dependence on the industrialized North. When the Civil War broke out, it attracted a major Confederate industry: the great Powderworks.

Col. George Rains built the plant in Augusta because of its railways and its canal. The factory produced powder, grenades and other material and was the only permanent structure built by the Confederacy. Its chimney remains standing as a monument to the past.

Today, the canal is a National Heritage Area and one of the region's most significant tourist attractions, with miles of hiking and bicycle trails, a visitors center and a series of historic, redeveloped buildings and amenities.