Tom Robertson's fascination with the Augusta Canal began with a chance visit 40 years ago.
"I was 10 years old, and my mother was helping out with the U.S. Census," he said. "She had to go out to the canal to count the squatters living there, and she didn't want to go by herself."
So Mr. Robertson went along-and immediately became enchanted with the canal's aging earthworks, stone bridges and the unspoiled beauty of the nearby Savannah River shoals.
Many years later, as an engineer, he learned to appreciate the canal's intricate design and functionality as a source of drinking water and hydropower that transformed Augusta into an industrial empire.
Today, as a longtime member of the Augusta Canal Authority, he marvels at how much has been accomplished in the decade since local preservationists and the National Park Service convinced Congress and the president to create the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area.
Fans of the canal will recognize that milestone today with a celebration at the canal headgates from 1 to 5 p.m., with food, entertainment, boat rides and the dedication of a new bridge and the restored locks.
Many improvements have been made to the canal since the first master plan was devised in 1993 - three years before its Congressional designation.
Among them are the Interpretive Center and Petersburg Boat tour program based at Enterprise Mill, where more than 44,000 people have enjoyed tours and rides. Historic buildings at the headgates have been restored, and the aging wooden pavilion once again resonates with dancers' feet.
How has it all affected Augusta?
"It gives a different reason for people to visit Augusta," Mr. Robertson said. "It took a long time for the canal to even be listed among all the things to do in Augusta. Today I think it's in the forefront."
Although listed in 1975 on the National Register of Historic Places, the canal languished in neglect for many years - and portions of it were nearly lost to development, said Tom Swift, whose love affair with the waterway began when he moved here in 1973.
"As a new arrival, the thing that surprised me the most was that this riverfront community didn't have any idea where the river was or how to get to it," Dr. Swift said.
After years of fishing in the shoals and hunting quail in the quiet meadows along the towpath, Dr. Swift and his children were well acquainted with the waterway - and were disappointed to learn of a proposal in the early 1990s to create a golf course along its banks.
"When we found out a golf course was being planned for it, we thought that was the beginning of the end for the canal," he said, noting that opponents to the plan created a group known as Savannah Waterways Forum and demanded that public officials preserve the site and not sell it off.
The master plan that evolved from the input of residents led to the creation of the National Heritage Area that was formally signed into existence by President Clinton on Nov. 12, 1996.
Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Augusta Canal National Heritage Area 10th anniversary celebration
When: Today from 1 to 5 p.m.
Where: Canal Headgates Park
Events planned:- Free Petersburg Boat mini-tours of upper canal
- Inaugural passage of first boat through restored locks, 1:30 p.m.
- Ribbon cutting for new bridge at Reed Creek, 3 p.m.
- Dancing, bluegrass music all day at restored Dance Pavilion
- Outdoor fair with exhibits on environmental stewardship
1847-48: Initial mills include Augusta Factory and Granite Flour Mill
1852: First enlargement; wing dam is extended across river.
1859: Augusta Water Works is constructed at Canal Basin.
1862-63: Confederate States Powder Works is constructed. Made 2.75 million pounds of powder, plus shells and hand grenades. Complex stretched two miles along canal.
1873: Canal is enlarged to 150 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Lake Olmstead is formed.
1875: New headgates, lock and dam are constructed.
1877-82: Enterprise Manufacturing, Sibley Manufacturing, J.P. King Manufacturing companies are founded, mills built.
1888: Canal is damaged by major flood.
1899: Augusta Water Works intake is built near Coleman's Branch. It is still in use.
1908: Canal is damaged again by major flood.
1915: City levee is begun.
1925: Mills begin to electrify operations.
1929: Largest flood on record in Augusta
1936-40: Levee is enlarged with assistance from Corps of Engineers and Works Progress Administration.
1964: Major flood; levee gates and stop-logs are closed.
1975: Augusta Canal is placed on National Register of Historic Places.
1978: Historic Augusta Canal and Industrial District is named a National Historic Landmark.
1989: Georgia Legislature creates Augusta Canal Authority.
1993: Master Plan is completed and published.
1994: Master Plan is adopted by City Council of Augusta and the Richmond County Board of Commissioners; plan receives award from Georgia Planning Association for Outstanding Planning Project: Planning for Economic Development. Canal is designated as Regionally Important Resource by state of Georgia (first and only).
1995: Initiated efforts with Congress to receive designation as National Heritage Area; World Canal Conference is held in Augusta
1996: Augusta Canal is designated by Congress as a National Heritage Area.
1997: Established permanent office and hired first full time director
1998: Executed Cooperative Agreement with National Park Service
1999: Opened temporary visitors center for heritage area; completed management plan for heritage area; Long Gate Spillway improvements are completed ($75,000).
2000: Management Plan for Augusta Canal National Heritage Area approved by Secretary of the Department of the Interior; sections of first level of canal are dredged ($365,000).
2001: Hydroelectric plant at Enterprise Mill renovated and put in service ($525,000); Master Plan for Interpretive Center is completed; Canal Authority purchases King Mill and leases it to Standard Textile of Augusta.
2002: Canal Interpretive Center is completed and opened, with orientation movie ($3.3 million).
2003: Petersburg Boat Docks completed, along with first Petersburg Tour Boat ($705,000); construction begins on canal multiuse trail ($1.25 million).
2004: Second Petersburg Tour Boat completed ($325,000); canal multiuse trail construction finished ($1.25 million); work begins on renovation of canal headgates and locks ($638,600); renovation of four headgate historic buildings completed ($842,500); construction begins on third level canal improvements ($8,300,000); remediation by Atlanta Gas Light Co. ($50,000,000); receives $835,000 Transportation Enhancement grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation for Phase III of canal multiuse trail (New Bartram Trail).
2005: Receives Award of Merit from American Association for State and Local History; is voted Best Tourist Attraction by the readers of Augusta Magazine; renovation completed on 1875 Gatehouse and 1875 and 1845 locks ($640,635); wins first place photography award (Southeast) for National Historic Landmarks and third place photography award (U.S.) for National Historic Landmarks; receives new 50-year license for Enterprise Hydroelectric plant.
2006: Receives Affiliate Chapter of the Year Award from the Georgia Historical Society; receives $550,000 Transportation Enhancement grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation for Phase IV of the Canal Multiuse Trail; dredging and widening of the third level of the canal is completed ($8.3 million); construction begins on new pedestrian bridge across the canal ($521,168).
The new bridge over the Augusta Canal waits for the last of three sections to be put into place just down from the headgates near the Savannah Rapids Pavilion.