by Susan Frampton
One cannot truly appreciate Augusta, Georgia without standing on the banks of the canal whose swift moving current has carried the city forward for almost two centuries, and the best place to begin the journey is at the source.
Bright kayaks dot the surface of the water at Savannah Rapids Park, and sunlight glints off the brass and stainless steel of hundreds of locks hooked through bars of the railing surrounding the dam. In the distance, the kayakers who wind their way leisurely through the green tunnel of trees lining the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area may not be aware that with each turn of the paddle, they dip into a 13-mile stretch of history. The current will take them through an area designated by U.S. Congress as significantly representative of the Industrial Revolution in America's history.
"On your left," or "On your right," rings out above from those who challenge themselves to conquer the miles of flat towpath that follows alongside the winding water.
Augusta is alive here; and as sure as the water cascades joyfully over the fall line to a lower elevation, the life and vitality of this place jubilantly spills over into the city.
Generations of lives have been affected by the water flowing through Augusta. It began in 1735, two years after General James Edward Oglethorpe stepped onto Georgia soil and onto the tall bluff he would call Savannah. From Georgia's first city, the state's founder would send troops up the river in search of it's farthest navigable headwaters, tasking them with the founding of a new settlement there.
Running beside Oglethorpe's second city, the river would come to shape the very fiber of Augusta's being; attracting agricultural growth and industry sufficient to prompt lawmakers to provide for the construction of the Augusta Canal. Barely fifteen years after the opening of the new waterway, the Civil War would tear open the seams of the country, and the Government of the Confederate States of America would erect the Confederate Powder Works; a 26-building complex stretching two miles along the Augusta Canal. Today, only the chimney remains. The adjacent Sibley Mill, one of the largest and most ornate cotton mills in the region, was built between 1880-1882, reusing the bricks and other material from the Powder Works.
Augusta survived the war better than many cities, and the population soon doubled as massive factories opened, and new textile mills attracted workers migrating from rural areas. But the life they found was far from easy; women and children were the primary work force, and youngsters, many only seven or eight years old, often worked 11-hour days in very poor conditions.
Today, tall brickwork towers mark the locations of the remaining mills, standing like forgotten castles along the country's only continuously operating hydropower canal. Three still have the ability to generate hydroelectric power and sell power to Georgia Power Company.
Enterprise Mill houses the Augusta Canal's Discovery Center, where visitors can watch "The Power of the Canal," a short film that allows viewers to walk amongst authentic mill machinery and experience firsthand the feel of a mill village, learn of Augusta's role in The Civil War, and better understand the Augusta Canal's contributions to the nation's quest for energy. The city draws 75% of its drinking water from the canal, explaining why gas and diesel motors are not allowed to operate in the channel.
To truly get a feel for early life on the canal, electric powered authentic replicas of the Petersburg boats, which once ruled the canal, depart several times daily for Heritage and Civil War tours, offering unique views of historic landmarks, behind-the-scenes stories, and a chance to catch playful otters, yellow-bellied slider turtles and the occasional alligator sunning of the shore.
There are places along the Augusta Canal where time stands absolutely still, but there is no doubt that from the rapids at its source to the turning basin at its end, this waterway has, and will always, carry the current of change.
Businesses at Savannah Rapids Park, located at the headgates of the canal, offer bike and kayak rentals year-round. You can also schedule a guided kayak tour with local outfitters.
Friday nights in the Spring and Fall are perfect for an evening picnic on the water as your cruise the canal serenaded by the live performances of local and regional musicians.
Subject matter specialists lead these 1 1/2 hour explorative talks focusing on the facets of the canal's historic and natural surroundings twice a month during the Spring and Fall.