Originally created 09/03/02

Falling water levels expose town site



Two centuries ago, it was Georgia's second-largest city, complete with seven schools, a newspaper and a population that produced six governors.

This summer, as Thurmond Lake's water levels recede to near-record lows, the colonial settlement of Petersburg is making a rare reappearance - and offering visitors a glimpse of a ghostly past.

"We get a lot of questions, and we have a few people who come all the way out here just to see it," said Jerry Cook, assistant manager at Bobby Brown State Park, which straddles the lake's shoreline in Elbert County.

The park, which occupies a peninsula at the confluence of the Savannah and Broad rivers, is the gateway to the place where Petersburg once thrived.

"Most of what you can see is bricks - from old foundations," Mr. Cook said, strolling along a desolate shoreline where fragments of the past have become more visible as the reservoir has slowly shrunk.

Petersburg was founded as a tobacco town by families from Virginia in the late 1700s - and enjoyed the height of its prosperity from 1789 to 1809, when 45,000 people lived in the Broad River Valley.

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 transported the cotton to other markets could travel only as far upstream as Augusta.

Petersburg began to die. And its death was as sudden as it was dramatic. By the 1850s, only a handful of residents remained in a town that once bustled with blacksmiths, tobacco warehouses and commerce.

An editorialist from the Atlanta Constitution summed up Petersburg's demise quite succinctly, in an Aug. 21, 1888 editorial: "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 what today is called Thurmond Lake. Before the flooding, the graves and ornate tombstones from the town were dug up and moved, although former burial sites remain marked with marble slabs.

Some of the graves were moved to nearby churchyards, Mr. Cook said.

"That was done back in the '50s," he said. "They moved every grave they could find."

Although most of the city's ruins now lie beneath the lake's murky waters, this summer's drought has lowered water levels more than 14 feet, exposing old roadbeds, fence lines and foundations.

The debris that can now be seen includes the litter of a bygone era: rusty spikes, broken glass and other relics. Collecting is banned from the area under federal laws administered by the Corps and by state laws governing historic sites.

The park's office displays a few items found in the area, and historical markers and brochures are available to ensure that visitors have access to the area's colorful past.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.