Petersburg once rivaled Augusta in wealth, prominence

City was Georgia's third-largest

Saturday, April 13, 2013 6:34 PM
Last updated Sunday, April 21, 2013 9:40 PM
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The waters of Georgia’s largest lake conceal the legacy of a city that once rivaled Augusta in wealth and prominence.

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Dionysius Oliver, who established a tobacco inspection warehouse in 1786 at the juncture of the Broad and Savannah rivers, soon expanded his commercial hub into a town he named Petersburg, after his birthplace in Virginia.

The city’s 86 individual lots were laid out carefully, covering a half-acre apiece. Fine homes and shops sprouted from cobblestoned streets and businesses lined a network of docks. By 1808, every one of Oliver’s lots were sold.

As Augusta and Savannah prospered downstream, Petersburg was close behind and became Georgia’s third-largest city.

Among its many prominent citizens were Dr. William Wyatt Bibb, the namesake of a Georgia county and Alabama’s first elected governor; and a U.S. senator named Charles Tait, who later became the first district court judge in Alabama.

An early travel guide, Pine Lands of Georgia, touted 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.”

That glowing 1801 description, however, was short-lived.

The tobacco trade that helped create the city became obsolete as Piedmont plantation crops shifted to cotton, whose growers were not required to bring their harvest to town for inspection.

Farther downstream, boats powered by steam navigated a deeper, wider channel than was available at Petersburg. With commerce fading, the city became stagnant and its residents left for brighter futures elsewhere.

In 1888, the once vibrant town’s remarkable downfall was summarized this way in an editorial published in the Atlanta Constitution: “Had the curse of God fallen upon this town, its obliteration from the face of the earth could not have been more complete.”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers planned its massive Clarks Hill reservoir, known today as Thurmond Lake, the nearly forgotten site of Petersburg was within the area to be inundated when the dam flooded 70,000 acres.

Archaeological studies were conducted in many areas, and hundreds of graves were relocated from cemeteries in the path of rising waters.

Petersburg, in particular, held the remains of many early Georgians, and some of them are likely still buried beneath the lake’s clear waters.

In a Clark Hill River Basin Survey prepared by the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, principal author Daniel T. Elliott cited the Old Petersburg Cemetery as an instance where not all of the graves were discovered and relocated. Though 52 graves were moved from the site, investigators believed a city as large as Petersburg would have buried more of its citizens there.

In 1989, decades after the reservoir was built, drought dropped the massive lake’s water levels more than 15 feet, revealing foundations, road beds — and several previously undiscovered graves.

One of them, described by Corps of Engineers real estate agent Gary Coleman, included a headstone, with a still-legible inscription:

“In Memory of Robert Davies Roundtree who departed this life 18th July 1802. Aged 16 Months 15 Days. Sleep on dear babe and take thy rest.

T’is God who called thee, He thought best.”

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