What makes the Augusta Canal so unique? It has been used continuously since 1847 to provide power, transportation, and water supply to nearby residents. This is the only canal in the U.S. to be able to make this claim.
The project, which is along the Savannah River, began in 1845, and the construction of mills along the river soon followed. A sawmill, grist mill, and textile mill were created along the canal, utilizing the power generated by the running water.
During the Civil War, this water power was used for another purpose. George Washington Rains, a colonel in the Confederacy, selected it as the location of the confederate powder works. The Confederate government built Twenty-eight buildings. In fact, those were the only structures that Confederate money paid for during its brief history. Amazingly, the powder works, along with the town of Augusta, was left untouched by Union General Sherman, who led a destructive march through the South at the end of the Civil War.
Unlike other Southern cities, Augusta boomed after the war. Other factories opened, and people flocked to the town for jobs. Augusta was the first southern city with streetlights and electric streetcars, all thanks to the canal.
Even as the town boomed, the working conditions for mill workers were poor. Eleven and one-half hour workdays were typical. There was a lot of labor unrest. A series of unsuccessful strikes tried to improve the workers’ conditions, but they failed.
The Augusta Canal’s hay day was in the late 1800s. But during the 1920s and 30s, flooding plagued the area. Work had to be done on the canal to keep it in use. Mills began to close, and city officials considered replacing the canal with a highway.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that talk began on revitalizing the area. After decades of planning and discussion, the national government finally designated the canal as a National Heritage Area, the first in Georgia.
Since this designation, local Augustans have been working to revitalize the area. A company offers tours along the canal on boats inspired by the cargo vessels that used to transport goods up and down the river.
A Discovery Center was built along the banks of the canal. This museum details the history and science of the canal. It also describes the life of the mill workers who lived and worked in Augusta, GA in the first part of the last century.
Developers are also converting old mills to upscale office space and apartments.
Finally, the canal is also the source of many recreation activities. People use the canal for kayaking, and along the canal are new trails for bikers and walkers. Visitors are cautioned to look for water moccasins and snapping turtles along the river. At times alligators have been spotted too.