I always tell people that old newspapers are like time capsules. Our reproduction of The Chronicle’s front page after the Kennedy assassination last week was a good example. To look at it is to grasp immediately what people were seeing and saying years ago.
And if you had opened up your Augusta newspaper 167 years ago this morning you wouldn’t have been disappointed. There was a report on progress of the Mexican War, details of a North Carolina political dispute and notice of a mail problem in Charleston. But the biggest news that November Tuesday was this: Water was finally flowing in the newly completed Augusta Canal.
“We have the gratification of stating that the water was let into the canal yesterday, and has been gradually wending its way to the city,” Chronicle editor and owner James W. Jones reported.
Jones, one of the canal’s biggest boosters, had reason to brag. An early supporter, he had once proclaimed: “The man who would transfer such a system … to the Southern States … would do more for the benefit of our people than have all the politicians since the days of Washington.”
On Nov. 24, 1846, he must have been positively giddy.
“This great work is now nearly finished and invites enterprise to enter the field of an important and lucrative business. We have no doubt of the result.”
Well, from the perspective of nearly 17 decades, we can look at our Augusta Canal and see that its fortunes, like the city it serves, have ebbed and flowed.
At first, its hydropower did catapult Augusta from economic decline into an industrial boom. The cotton mills, however, and powder works came and went.
By the 1960s, city leaders considered draining the canal, then paving its course to create a commuter highway.
They finally decided to build the Calhoun Expressway, instead, and most of us are glad they did.
We agree with former U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbit, who stood on the canal’s banks during a tour in the mid-1990s and called it “a unique piece of American landscape and American history.”
Let me suggest there is another lesson here on the value of historic preservation. Throughout the history of our community, indeed all communities, resources and landmarks can be forgotten for years, only to suddenly spring back into the spotlight with rediscovered value.
Consider the canal’s big brother the Savannah River.
After the levee went up in the 1930s, Augusta seemed to almost forget it even had a river – out of sight, out of mind.
With the 1980s came Riverwalk Augusta and hotels and construction and the river attracted new attention and business. And when Augusta’s riverfront efforts began to wane, North Augusta took up the torch on the opposite bank, building showcase homes and parks, a golf course and is now planning a baseball stadium.
I am not saying we can preserve every natural resource anymore than we can save every old building. But I do believe we need to think carefully about doing something that would remove them forever.
The past is always a part of our present and often offers potential for our future.