A system of ditches just south of downtown Augusta will soon look a whole lot more like a canal.
Work to rewater the third level of the Augusta Canal will be finished in a couple of months, said canal authority Executive Director Dayton Sherrouse. The $396,000 project includes building a mechanical dam to replace a set of old canal gates near 12th and Telfair streets.
The new dam will keep the water level closer to the top of the concrete canal conduit, instead of allowing it to immediately drain into the Savannah River. That will improve the stagnant puddles of storm water, trash and weeds seen in the downtown canal today, Sherrouse said.
"It's a way to make this more of an amenity, rather than a liability," he said.
Once construction is finished, the gates at the canal's current endpoint near Walton Rehabilitation Hospital will be opened, and water will flood the second level, which runs towards John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, then move through an underground pipe to the third level, which runs above ground from Eighth to 12th streets.
The authority first planned the rewatering project nearly 20 years ago, Sherrouse said, but it couldn't begin work until recent years, after a cleanup of coal tar deposits left along the third level by the old Atlanta Gas and Light Co. had been completed.
Augusta's industrial district today lies near its south side, but at the turn of the 20th century it was closer to the heart of the city. It was in the area between Greene and D'Antignac streets, from Eighth to 15th streets, that many of Augusta's early mills and fabrication plants appeared. They were powered by the canal.
Fed by the Savannah, the canal flowed along a straight path into Augusta until just past Enterprise Mill. Then it zigzagged through downtown, dropping 13 feet between the first and second levels and another 13 feet between the second and third levels.
The gravity-fed system mechanically turned shafts and belts in factories years before electricity was used in industry.
"Its heyday was from 1875 to about 1925," said authority board member Tom Robertson. "At one time, there were about a total of 50 users of canal power."
Those included the Globe Mill, Augusta Manufacturing Co., Southern Milling Co. and Georgia Ironworks, which fabricated manhole covers that still appear on Augusta streets.
In the early 20th century, as electricity became more prevalent, companies could build a plant anywhere a wire could be run, and industry spread to other places.
Even so, existing manufacturers continued using canal water, this time to generate electricity for their plants. Doing so remained cheaper than buying electricity from power companies.
The authority hopes reviving the canal's downtown sections could spark new interest in nearby properties.
A plan by Augusta Tomorrow had envisioned a mixed-use residential area along a rewatered canal third level.
"Water is magic," Robertson said. "The reason the land around the third level is available and a lot of it is empty is because it's old industrial sites that are no longer needed. Maybe the canal will be a catalyst for infill development and a new attraction in that area."
The recently built Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Center sits next to the canal's third level. The canal authority plans to extend its bicycle path in 2012 along newly rewatered parts of the canal using a Department of Transportation grant.