The Savannah River’s last remaining stretch of shoals has been a tourist attraction of sorts for more than 4,000 years.
Long before the area became popular with kayakers and runners, early Indian tribes established one of the region’s first settled communities, known as the Stallings Island culture, just upstream from the Augusta Canal headgates and its popular park and visitors center.
The earliest settlers built stone fish weirs in the river channels and grew crops in the fertile soil, leaving behind some of the richest archaeological sites – and some of the oldest pottery – in North America.
Today’s visitors can enjoy an array of amenities that include a canoe and kayak launch into the river, picnic and parking areas overlooking the most scenic portions of the river and the canal towpath that is popular with bicyclists, joggers and pedestrians.
The headgates area also includes the canal’s original earthworks, a restored lock and other features first built in 1845.
The area was enlarged just after the Civil War as part of an intricate redesign that provided drinking water for a growing city and hydropower that transformed Augusta into an early industrial empire.
Although listed in 1975 on the National Register of Historic Places, the canal headgates area languished in neglect for many years before efforts to restore and protect the area gained steam.
The most recent improvements, completed in 2010, included expanded parking, a canoe dropoff access road, picnic shelters on the bluff above the river and even a “doggie drinking fountain” near the pedestrian bridge to the canal towpath.
The area is also home to several historic buildings that have been carefully restored and renovated.
The Lockkeepers Cottage, built in the 1800s, once housed the Lockkeeper and his family who manually operated the locks that allowed boats to move between the river and the canal.
There is also a restored dance pavilion and a barbecue pit nearby.
Today the cottage serves as the headquarters for the State Certified Visitor Center.
Staff is available, as well as brochures, offering information about Columbia County, the area and the entire state of Georgia.
One room is arranged as if the Lockkeeper still lived there in order to give visitors an idea of life during that time.
A second room is dedicated to a pictorial history and several displays, and an area to view a video of the canal and its history.