“Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, we’re a com-in to a town. You will always know your neighbor, you will always know your pal, if you have ever navigated on the” Augusta Canal???? In Dearing, Georgia while in grade school we used to sing the “Erie Canal” song written by Thomas Allen in 1905, but I had no idea the August Canal was only 30 miles away. It, too, is steeped in history.
As I got a little older I heard about the Augusta Canal and the fact that people caught fish in it got my attention. We would cross sections of it going into downtown Augusta but it still meant little to me. The bigger waters of nearby Clark’s Hill always attracted me more.
I knew there was a lock and dam near Augusta that allowed boats to come into the city and I assumed the canal was part of that system. But it is not. The lock and dam is downstream of Augusta and the dam for the canal is upstream. It raises the level of the Savannah River and forces the water into a canal that runs into downtown Augusta.
Constructed in 1845 and enlarged in 1875, the 8.5 mile canal is not for moving barges. It provides power for mills. Each mill along its length has a water intake and the falling water turns turbines that power machinery in the mill. The first mills build to take advantage of the canal were saw mills and grist mills, then textile mills for spinning thread from cotton and weaving it into cloth were built.
During the Civil War the canal and location of Augusta made the Confederacy build its powder works there. The Confederate State of America Powderworks complex made almost all the gunpowder used by the south in the war. The powder works buildings were the only buildings ever constructed by the CSA government and its 28 buildings stretched for two miles along the canal. It was torn down after the war and the only remaining sign of it is the tall chimney that sits just off the canal.
Augusta was not destroyed in the civil war as were so many towns and cities in Georgia by Sherman’s March to the Sea. After the war the city went through a boom, and the Enterprise, King and Sibley textile mills, the Lombard Ironworks and many others were built along the canal.
By 1892 Augusta was using the canal to turn electric generators and was the first southern city to have streetlights and street cars powered by water from the canal. For years Augusta boomed due to the canal but by the mid 1950s it had gone downhill. By the 1960s city officials considered closing the canal, draining it and making it into a highway.
The canal was preserved and is now a natural oasis within the city. People walk and ride bikes on the old towpaths along its banks. You can see many kinds of birds and even alligators there, and the fishing is good. Boats are limited to electric power only and many canoes and kayaks travel its waters.
The Enterprise Mill was restored and turned into an office and residential complex. It now houses the Augusta Canal National Heritage Interpretive Center. It houses exhibits and artifacts depicting canal construction and mill life. You can also catch a “Petersburg Boat” for a ride on the canal at the mill.
Petersburg was a city upstream of Augusta at the junction of the Savannah and Broad Rivers. Between 1800 and 1810 it was the third largest Georgia city, after Savannah and Augusta. Its location made it a trade center, especially for tobacco farmers. The remains of the old city now lie under the waters of Clark’s Hill Lake.
Petersburg boats are long, narrow boats built to use the canal. The ones available for tours are now electric powdered but they once were pulled by mules trudging along the towpaths along the canal. You get a good view of the canal, bridges and buildings along it as well as sighting some wildlife. The tour guides give a history of the canal and point out interesting sights. You are not allowed to fish from the boats!
There is a beautiful park at the headwaters of the canal at the dam and you can enjoy even catch smallmouth bass in the shoals near there. The gatekeeper’s house has been turned into a visitor’s center where you can get information about the area.
I can’t believe I grew up 30 miles from this historic area and never visited. Don’t make my mistake, plan a visit.