Originally created 08/05/98

Society hopes to restore canal, create hiking path



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- From 1831 to 1892, everyone from slaves to merchants to Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman traveled the 16´-mile Savannah/Ogeechee canal, which connected the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers.

Now, a preservation society wants to give future generations the chance to do the same thing.

"The ultimate objective for the society is to restore the canal so that people could canoe from Ogeechee to Savannah," said Jerry Williamson, the volunteer director of a museum and nature center built near the canal.

Slaves and about 100 Irish workers began constructing the waterway in about 1825. It took more than five years to complete.

"At that time, there was canal fever everywhere in the U.S.," Williamson said. "It was the easiest and most direct route."

But then came the railroad, and development of canals came to a standstill.

The Savannah/Ogeechee Canal Society, which owns 180 acres adjacent to the canal, must obtain permits before doing any restoration work on the waterway, said Robert Moulis, the museum's curator.

"It's a long, drawn-out process," he said. "Before we can do any work on the canal, we've been told a master plan has to be done" at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000.

In addition to restoring the canal, the society plans to build biking and hiking trails alongside it, Williamson said.

But the restoration will take a while. Williamson said the society lost a needed grant earlier this year, and he doesn't expect work on the canal to really get under way until the year 2000.

In the meantime, volunteers help maintain what's left of the corridor and build boardwalks for foot traffic.

"Sometimes I wish I wasn't a member," joked Tommy Shearouse, a 72-year-old member of the canal society. "Then I could spend Saturdays at home."

It's volunteers like Shearouse who keep the nonprofit Savannah/Ogeechee Museum and Nature Center going, Williamson said. Right now, the museum is a small house that exhibits a collection of local turtles and snakes as well as artifacts found in the canal, such as nails used for construction.

A naturalist is on hand to give tours along the canal, mostly to groups of school children and senior citizens, Williamson said.

The canal society hopes to give the canal a purpose again.

"The emphasis in Savannah has always been on marine biology, but right in our own backyard, we have unique environments," Williamson said.