Dam finally tamed Savannah River flood threat

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See 41 photos from the 1990 flood

Before dams and levees tamed the Savannah River's intermittent rage, floods were a way of life in Augusta for almost 200 years.

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Work on Clarks Hill Dam -- later renamed Thurmond Dam -- began in 1944. Congress authorized the dam after a levee proved to not be enough to protect Augusta.  File
File
Work on Clarks Hill Dam -- later renamed Thurmond Dam -- began in 1944. Congress authorized the dam after a levee proved to not be enough to protect Augusta.

More than 20 catastrophic floods surged through Augusta from the 1700s into the early 1900s. One of the worst was in 1908, and it was the final straw for the city's governing board.

The Army Corps of Engineers had recommended as early as 1870 that a levee or dam be built to protect the city, but the idea wasn't taken seriously until 1908.

That year, the river swelled wildly beyond its banks, knocking out bridges, pushing buildings from their foundations and leaving 18 people dead. Dozens of city blocks were destroyed.

Plans to erect a levee to repel the river from downtown accelerated that year, and by 1911 -- when another major spring flood sealed public opinion on the matter -- a Canal & River Commission was formed to get the job done.

The levee gave Augustans a sense of security, and it repelled its first flood soon after its completion in 1919. Similar surges flowed harmlessly past the city in 1921 and in spring 1929.

Augustans thought they were safe. But on Sept. 20, 1929 -- just weeks before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression -- the waters rose again, and the levee was topped in several locations. Despite a decade of work, more than 100 city blocks were flooded as the river surged to an estimated 38 times its average flow.

Mayor William Bell referred to it as "the most dangerous moment in Augusta's history."

The city, taken by surprise, initiated steps in 1930 to enlarge and strengthen the levee.

However, lingering fears led to a much more permanent flood-control plan just 14 years later, when Congress -- mindful of the threat under which Augustans lived -- authorized Clark Hill Dam to be constructed 21 miles upstream.

The dam was originally named for the South Carolina community of Clarks Hill, but the letter "s" was dropped from Clarks in the original legislation because of a typographical error. It was restored in 1980.

The dam was renamed the J. Strom Thurmond Dam in 1987.

When the mammoth reservoir and dam were completed a decade later, floods from the Savannah River became a thing of the past for most Augustans.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

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