“There’s not much here today,” the Army Corps of Engineers biologist said. “But 200 years ago, it must have been quite a place.”
The wide, level ground at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah rivers holds the ghostly ruins of Petersburg, once hailed as Georgia’s second-largest city and an economic rival to Augusta 70 miles downstream.
“There were stores here, and warehouses and shops,” Boyd said. “They had a blacksmith, churches, schools, a newspaper – all right here between these two big rivers.”
The city’s founder, Dionysius Oliver, established a tobacco inspection warehouse around 1786. The commerce it lured from upstate plantations attracted affluent settlers who helped the settlement grow rapidly.
Oliver called his town Petersburg, after his birthplace in Virginia – and designed it with 86 half-acre lots that had all been sold by 1808. Historical records describe fine homes, doctors’ offices, a public well and a network of warehouses and docks connected by cobblestoned streets.
In its day, Boyd said, Petersburg was much like sister city Augusta in wealth and prominence. Its citizens included two U.S. senators: Charles Tait, who also became Alabama’s first district court judge, and William Wyatt Bibb, a physician and the namesake of a Georgia county who later became Alabama’s first elected governor.
In 1801, the town was described favorably in an early travel guide, Pine Lands of Georgia, which characterized Petersburg as “a handsome, well-built town that presents, in the view of the astonished traveler, a town which has risen out of the woods in a few years, as if by enchantment.”
Soon, however, tobacco yielded to King Cotton as the economic engine that drove the region’s commerce. Steamboats that took the cotton to other markets could travel only as far upstream as Augusta, which thrived and continued to grow.
Petersburg died and was forgotten. Its residents moved away as the commerce that once fueled its growth languished.
By the 1850s, only a handful of residents remained – and in 1888, an Atlanta Constitution editorialist summed up Petersburg’s demise quite succinctly: “Had the curse of God fallen upon this town, its obliteration from the face of the earth could not have been more complete.”
What remained of the town was inundated a half-century ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers flooded 72,000 acres to build Thurmond Lake.
Before the flooding, the graves and ornate tombstones from the town were moved to nearby churchyards, Boyd said.
“There were two cemeteries, with about 50 graves,” Boyd said. “They moved all the ones they could find, but there were probably lots of others.”
The remains of Oliver, the town’s founder, was moved – along with his headstone – just a few miles away, to a church near Elberton, Ga., where other Petersburg residents lie at rest.
Although most of the city’s ruins now lie beneath the lake’s murky waters, the recent drought has lowered water levels as much as 15 feet, exposing the forgotten fragments of old roadbeds, fence lines and foundations.
“You see broken pottery, bricks, lots of iron,” Boyd said, noting, however, that the site is a government-owned cultural resource, where artifact collecting is forbidden.
The lake’s waters are slowly rising with winter rain. When the reservoir is restored to full pool, the ghost town of Petersburg will once again be lost.