Canal powered industry in Augusta

Many people aren't aware of the historical significance of the Augusta Canal and the impact it had, said Julie Boone, a guide at Augusta Canal National Heritage Area.

Without the canal, the city might not have grown as it did, she said.

"When that canal was created, the population of Augusta doubled from 15,000 to 30,000," she said, standing near an exhibit in the museum area of the National Heritage Area inside the Enterprise Mill building on Greene Street.

"It's the oldest continually used industrial canal in the U.S.," said Rebecca Rogers, the marketing director of the heritage area.

Today, tourists visit the center to browse the museum and take the Petersburg boat tours up the canal, but long ago the water had an important use.

The museum features exhibits reflective of the mid-1800s to the early 20th century, when the canal was used to power factories and mills in the Harrisburg and downtown areas.

The center shows a film that details much of the canal's history. It shows how the canal, an idea of Augusta native Henry Cumming to change the economy, was created in 1845. Mr. Cumming wanted the canal to harness the power of the Savannah River to form an industrial base because tobacco and cotton production in the area was declining. The first mill was in use in 1847.

The canal would be drained every summer for cleaning and mill employees would have one week off, Ms. Rogers said. It was enlarged in 1873, and four years later Enterprise Manufacturing was formed, followed by Sibley Mill in 1880. King Mill arrived two years later.

All those job opportunities had a major effect on Augusta's population, Mrs. Boone said.

"And Augusta became a big tourist attraction in the early 1900s," she said.

However, after changes in the economy and some flood damage to the canal, it wasn't a main power source by 1970, the film states.

"Some people don't even know it's here," Ms. Boone said. "It still provides the city's drinking water."

Augusta Canal Authority was formed in the late 1980s, she said, and preservation and upkeep of the canal began. Now, in addition to being a tourist attraction, many people use the canal for boating, fishing or picnicking, she said. The museum also is a site for school field trips.

Ms. Boone doesn't know what Augusta might have become without the canal.

"Wow, maybe nothing," she said. "Or we might be the size of Sylvania - if we were lucky."

Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or samantha.mckevie@augustachronicle.com.


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