The Augusta Riverwalk

View from the Levee, Augusta Riverwalk in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.

The Augusta Riverwalk is comprised of a lower sidewalk/trail that lies next to the Savannah River. Patrons can see a spectacular view of the river by walking along the upper levee that towers over the Riverwalk itself. Park maintenance seems to keep the site well preserved and clean. The Savannah river provided the initial breath of life to the region and the Riverwalk is the result of a continuous effort to preserve and cultivate downtown Augusta. Although you can visit several shops and restaurants now along Broadstreet, the nearest main roadway to the Riverwalk area, there have been struggles to keep this part of the city alive. The building of two subsequent shopping malls in 1978 led to a near 20 year demise of the activity around the downtown region, but an effort by the Augusta Tomorrow organization inevitably led to a renaissance of shops and dining in the vicinity of Broadstreet. 

Augusta is a city in a continuous state of becoming. The ebb and flow of declination and expansion is apparent throughout the city’s history. Even George Washington upon a visit to Augusta in 1791 noted that “the town is well laid out with wide and spacious streets. It bids fair to be a large Town being at the head of the present navigation and a fine country back of it for support.” To some, George Washington’s words still ring true, as Augusta looks to be a town unfinished. I have heard a common phrase in the area that “Augusta will be a great city in 10 years.” Visitors to the region seem to have used this phrase since its founding. From the early 1730s until the present day, the city of Augusta acted as a centerpiece for the region along the Savannah River in Georgia. Initially founded in 1736, it became the second town of the 13th British colony. The founder of the city, General James Edward Oglethorpe, chose this location because of its position on the Savannah River. The initial intent was to use it as a trading post for Furs and other Commodities from Native Americans. Here, soldiers fought the first major battle of the American Revolution, The Siege of the “White House“. The second was The Siege of Augusta, in which General “Light Horse” Harry Lee retook the town from British control.

Savannah River in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.

After the revolution, Augusta served as a temporary capital to the state of Georgia between 1786 and 1795. As the town continued to grow, suburbs expanded, and the population increased. In the 1830s, Augusta’s economy began dying. In part, this was due to the railroad expansion Westward to an area that would eventually become Atlanta. Hoping to cement Augusta’s future, the city relied heavily on its cotton market, using the canal for water power, flower mills, cotton Mills, iron works, and other manufacturing. In 1862 the confederate government established the Powder Works Refinery on the Augusta Canal, and used it as a center for confederate goods such as shoes, cotton guns, munitions and other commodities. Following the Confederate defeat at the hands of the Union Army, they demolished the Powder Works Refinery, saving one smoke stack. Many in the late 19th century considered the Powder Works Refinery in Augusta to be a monumental achievement in engineering and production, outputting nearly 2,750,000 pounds of gunpowder throughout the Civil War. Prior to its construction in 1862, Nashville was the only major supplier of munitions in the South. Although they eventually dismantled the structure, Colonel G.W. Rains asked in 1872, that the Obelisk Chimney be spared as he had designed it to “… remain a monument to the Confederacy should the Powderworks pass away”. Confederacy was strong in the region, not only because of its location in Georgia but merely due to demographics. The population of Georgia was fifty-six percent white and forty-four percent black. There were over 6,000 slaves residing in Augusta, most of whom worked as field labor. Its background as a military town cemented it as the optimal location for Fort Gordon. The US government originally established the area as Camp Gordon shortly after the United States entered World War II. After the war, it became a permanent installation and the home of the United States Army Signal Corps. The city initially constructed a levee in 1919, but the safety it provided was short-lived. The Flood of 1929, devastated the region, with the new levee providing little protection to stop the flood of the downtown area. In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savannah River upstream and added an area now known as Clarks Hill Lake or Lake Strom Thurmond.

Broad Street

After the downturn to the economy in the 1970s, Augusta is now finally on the rise again. Shops and restaurants are now filling empty spaces along Broad Street. Until recently this area looked near condemned and deserted. Now the “hipster joints” fill the empty shops. A broadening of wholesome foods, coffee shops, and unique artistry seems to be reviving the area. 

As you walk along Broad Street, you encounter the James Brown statue, vibrant shops, and the spacious and peaceful Augusta Commons. While offering beautiful scenery of the Savannah River and more than enough seating areas along the river to enjoy the day, the artifacts of the past meld the old with the new.

James Brown Statue in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019

The stern riverboat wheel on display is marked as Augusta’s last sternwheeler, built in 1933 and wrecked in 1961. It harmoniously represents the origins of the city and its connection to the river that allowed for its birth. 

Stern Paddle Wheel Inscription in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.
Stern Paddle Wheel in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.

As you watch newer watercraft cruise along the river, the rusted, haunting steel of the 6th Street Rail Bridge reminds you of the city’s industrial roots. The more modernized concrete and steel 5th Street Bridge, establishes one of the primary connections between Augusta, GA and North Augusta, SC across the Savannah River.

6th Street Train Bridge in Augusta, GA. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.

Unlike most places I’ve lived, such as Washington D.C., Augusta doesn’t echo of the past as equivalent older cities. Although monuments and buildings of age still stand, the surrounding town is continually in a flux of redefining itself, not cementing itself in the past. In this way, the history of this river city is palpable and you can feel it in every measure anywhere you visit. But it also feels new, young, and vibrant. As a historian, I am captured by its grace and beauty, while it also fills me with a hope for the future. The city will undoubtedly keep changing and breathing new life into its suburbs and downtown district. Through every step of the downtown area and Riverwalk, it feels as if the city is alive and has a mind of its own. For this reason, I am confident that whatever economic challenges Augusta faces, it will rebound and continue to recycle itself to thrive. Development consistently represents its resilience to adversity in the past, with its eyes firmly planted on the future. For that, I am proud to call it my new home. 

View of North Augusta, SC. Image: Charles Babcock, 2019.

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