75 for 75: Historic Savannah-Ogeechee Canal still surrounded by activity, construction


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A Central of Georgia Railway spans West Boundary Street and the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal in 1853.

Unmarked and unrecognized, the antiquated eastern terminus of the Savannah and Ogeechee Canal sits just off Georgia Ports Authority Gate 1 at West River and Warner streets.

That’s in keeping with history. It wasn’t meant to be pretty. Built in the 1820s, when canals were highways of commerce, it was a 16.5-mile-long workhorse that connected Middle Georgia crops with Savannah River wharfs.

The original concept was grander. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened new markets in the Northeast and Great Lakes, and businessmen in Georgia hoped to reap those same benefits. But, when financial efforts to link the Altamaha, Ogeechee and Savannah rivers failed, construction on the Savannah and Ogeechee project started in 1826.

Hundreds of African-American slaves and Irish immigrants labored for years to complete the project. In March of 1828, the work force numbered 577. The canal was completed in December of 1830.

Expectations were then high. One Savannah newspaper predicted the canal would move enough cotton and timber to make the city the leading port of the South. That did not happen. The Central of Georgia Railroad, which opened a few years later, pulled much of that traffic instead.

Still, the canal proved moderately successful. Through the 1840s and 1850s, it barged a myriad of products, including cotton, timber, guano, bricks and produce. Several industries opened along or near its banks, including sawmills, brick yards and warehouses. In December of 1864, canal facilities were damaged when United States and Confederate forces skirmished along its western terminus (now the site of the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center).

The canal rebounded briefly. But its largely stagnant waters and constantly overrun banks were connected to the 1876 yellow fever epidemic that claimed more than 1,000 lives, and by the early 1890s it was largely closed to commercial operations.

Though traffic was diminished, activity remained high on streets near the canal’s eastern terminus. Insurance maps marked The Ocean Steamship Co. (now the GPA’s Ocean Terminal), which lined four cotton warehouses adjacent to the canal, along with a resin dock and an elevator on its western bank. Other nearby structures included a cotton press, an ice-and-cold storage house and brick tenements.

Now, as the 200th anniversary of the canal approaches, it’s again surrounded by activity and construction. The 200-acre Ocean Terminal, which boasts five berths and handles breakbulk commodities, dominates the neighborhood. A popular distillery and brewery attract crowds to Indian Street, and a massive apartment project is scheduled to open this year.

The canal terminus will remain unaffected. It, and the rest of the canal, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Sources: New Georgia Encyclopedia; “Savannah & Ogeechee Barge Canal,” Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service; National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Savannah and Ogeechee Canal; 1884, 1888, 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, Library of Congress Web site;