We learned all about American canals in school, or so I thought. In the days before trains, men loaded goods onto canal barges. Then the barges would be pulled slowly by draft animals trudging up the tow path. It was a slow means of transportation, but still faster and more reliable than overland travel. And canals became obsolete when railroads went through.
So, when we visited the Augusta Canal in Augusta, Georgia last summer, I was quite surprised to learn that the waterway had been built in 1845, well after the advent of railroad. Were these people stupid? Didn’t they know that canals were obsolete? Well, it turns out that they knew a few more things about canals than I did.
Though the canal did serve as a means of transportation, it was built primarily as a source of water power. Water channeled off from the Savannah River flows through turbines, and the turning action drives machinery in factories.
Soon after construction, the canal water powered a saw and grist mill and the Augusta Factory, a textile manufacturing operation. Henry H. Cumming, who spearheaded efforts to build the canal, envisioned it turning Augusta into “the Lowell of the South.” Before too long, manufacturing plants lined the canal’s banks, including the Confederate States of America Powderworks during the Civil War. The 28 buildings of the Powderworks complex stretching for two miles along the canal were the only structures ever built by the government of the Confederate States of America After the war, the seven-mile canal was deepened and widened, and huge new manufacturing operations fueled an economic boom in Augusta. Workers flocked from the country to shanties in “mill villages” clustered around the textile plants.
Some of these plants are still operating today on water power from the canal, making it the only intact industrial canal in the American South in continuous use. Not only the textile plants, but the canal authority itself uses the canal to generate electricity for its own use and sells the surplus to the Georgia Power Company. The canal also continues to supply water to segments of the city, just as it has for over 150 years.
Last summer when we visited, we took a boat tour of the canal during which we were caught in a torrential thunderstorm and came away looking as if we had been riding under the boat rather than inside it. We returned — in dry clothes — to tour the interactive museum complex on another day. And my mental image of the obsolete canal is changed forever.
I first posted this blog on my website in 2010, but it somehow didn’t make the transfer to the new website. You can still take a trip down the canal in a replica Petersburg boat which provided transportation up the Savannah River. Steamboats could not travel upriver from Augusta, so Petersburg boats were relied on heavily, although the town of Petersburg itself eventually disappeared.
To learn more about a traditional canal, check out my post about the town of Waterloo on the Morris Canal.