Savannah-Ogeechee Canal

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Qianwen Tu as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2018.

The Savannah-Ogeechee Canal historical marker was dedicated in 2003. View the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal historical marker listing.

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1. Qianwen Tu, The Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, 2018.

2. Qianwen Tu, The Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Historical Marker, 2018.

3. Qianwen Tu, The model of a lock of the canal, 2018.

4. Library of Congress, Savannah & Ogeechee Barge Canal, Between Ogeechee & Savannah Rivers, Savannah, Chatham County, GA. 1968, print, https://www.loc.gov/item/ga0912/.

5. Meta, Lance E., ed. Canal History and Technology Proceeding. Easton, Pennsylvania: Canal History and Technology Press, 1955, print.

6. Qianwen Tu, The exhibit in the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum, 2018.

7. Qianwen Tu, The room for watching the documentary about Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, 2018.

8. Qianwen Tu, artistic interpretation of the canal and its builders, with Chinese influence, 2018.

9. Qianwen Tu, artistic interpretation of the canal created in collaboration with Susie King Taylor School fourth grade student Alexis, 2018.

The following essay is by SCAD student Qianwen Tu, 2018.

Introduction

The Savannah-Ogeechee canal is one of the prime relics in the history of southern canals, and it was also the first barge canal built in Georgia. This canal is 16.5 miles long, starting with the lock at the Savannah River and ending at the Ogeechee River.[1] It passed through the Savannah region’s important industrial corridor and meandered by typical natural scenery; in the nineteenth century the canal was used to transport commercial supplies and passengers.[2] The Savannah-Ogeechee canal played an important role in Georgia’s economy prior to its closure and restoration as a tourist site (figure 1).

When compared to northern canals, canals in America’s South receive less attention from scholars because most southern canals are shorter in length and carried fewer passengers and less cargo.[3] However, the Savannah-Ogeechee canal is still worthy to receive renewed scholarship because it reflects several significant aspects of southern history, including the economy, labor, and urban history. Although the canal project did not ultimately live up to its original plan and experienced the unfortunate bankruptcy of its parent company, the Savannah-Ogeechee canal still prospered and flourished for many years from the 1830s until 1890.[4]

 

The Conflict and the Original Plan

The historical marker of Savannah-Ogeechee canal states that this canal project took four to five years to complete (figure 2). Many complications occurred during its early beginnings, and the complexity of the local landscape was one of the main difficulties during the construction.[5] In addition to the environmental hazards and natural difficulties, many human factors also affected the difficult construction of the canal. The canal was initially intended to connect the Savannah River with the Altamaha River. However, this plan was never fulfilled due to the lack of funds and the fact that the original engineer resigned in the middle of the construction process.[6]

In 1824, influenced by the popularity of canals in other parts of the country, the state or Georgia chose Ebenezer Jenckes, a local turnpike owner, to be the director of constructing the Savannah-Ogeechee canal. Jenckes threw his ambition into this canal project, seeking to extend a section of the local Savannah waterway to the Altamaha River.[7] Most investors and professionals had a positive attitude on this decision because they thought reaching the Altamaha would bring more commercial benefits to the coast.[8] Due to this outpouring of early support, Jenckes received an additional $50,000 from the state for his enterprise. During 1825 and 1826, the beginning of this canal project seemed successful. Supporters believed the canal would bring extra benefits, such as changing the climate for the better and modifying the city landscape to become more open to the sea. Furthermore, the promoters claimed that “this canal would still be worth its costs even if it produced no profits” due to the improved climate.[9] During this time, Jenckes went to New York to meet with Dewitt Clinton, governor of New York and the person who was responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal.[10] Clinton recommended that his son, Dewitt Clinton, Jr. be the engineer for Savannah-Ogeechee canal project.[11] However, the difficulties started when the young Clinton arrived in Savannah. The public suspected his ability and experience as a young professional engineer, and the local contractors did not follow his suggestion to build a smaller feeder canal for supplying water to the main waterway.[12] As the conflict intensified, Clinton and his assistant William Morill resigned as the engineers and as a result the link between the Ogeechee and Altamaha Rivers was abandoned.[13] In 1828, the company tried to keep building the extension to the Altamaha by hiring Alfred Cruger.[14] However, the project did not succeed because of a chronic shortage of funds and many technical problems.[15]

In December 1830, the canal project completed its route from the Savannah River to the Ogeechee River. The local newspaper wrote that the completed canal was much cheaper and better than the Erie canal.[16] The project ultimately consisted of six locks (figure 3); three of them were made of brick and the other three were made of wood (figure 4). However, the wood locks quickly deteriorated.[17] Amos Scudder, a Savannah local, made many contributions with the upkeep of the canal.[18] Scudder repaired many sections of the canal and suggested the use of bricks, rather than wood, for the canal’s locks.[19]

The Labor

The canal was primarily built by African-American and Irish laborers.[20] The situation of these workers from that time reflects some aspects of the urban history of Savannah:

At this time, the canal company changed its construction program in important ways, turning increasingly to local planters as subcontractors. As a result, many who owned lands along the canal prospered even before the canal was completed. While slaves received no pay for their labors, the system of leasing slaves permitted investors in the canal company to recoup an immediate return and to generate income during seasons when fewer laborers were needed in the fields. [21]

 

Gleaned from graphs of the Savannah, Ogeechee, and Altamaha canal work force from 1827-1829 (figure 5), it can be learned that most laborers were African-American, and fewer were white laborers. All of these laborers worked in the oppressive heat and humidity in Georgia’s swampy environment. The local newspaper, the Daily Savannah Republican, encouraged the practice of using black laborers who were seen as cheaper and more efficient.[22] The canal was primarily constructed by slaves and poor immigrants, who received little if any compensation, and no public recognition. This project aims to resurrect their stories and honor their memory.

Yellow Fever

In 1876, the traumatic disease of yellow fever ravaged Savannah. It caused the canal to be closed temporarily because people were concerned that the swampy environment would worsen and promote the disease.[23] In fact, the year previous to 1876 was unnaturally dry, and as a result the swamps were much drier than previous years.[24] Due to this, the malarial fevers were less than usual.[25] The dry climate made people neglect the upkeep of their ditches and drains in cultivation areas, and thus the following season’s torrential rains stagnated into these places, creating a perfect bed for algae, water-plants, germs, and mosquitoes.[26]

 

The Contemporary Canal

The Savannah-Ogeechee canal ceased to operate for commercial business in the 1890s.[27] The reason behind the closure was tightly related to the railway development in Georgia. The Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company was formed in 1833, after that the governors and businessmen thought the railroad could bring more commercial benefit to the region than the canal.[28] The railroad was more efficient and prosperous, and therefore the canal quickly became obsolete as a method of transportation. Canal fever started to fade away and was replaced by railroad fever.[29] Until the 1880s, the Central of Georgia company started to buy stakes in the canal.[30] Since then, the Central of Georgia reconstructed and rearranged the locations of the canal for improved use of steamships.[31]

Today, the Savannah-Ogeechee canal has been restored by local citizens. The Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center was built near lock 5, where tourists can see the specific natural environment and spot native animal and plant species such as the gopher tortoise and flag iris.[32] Connie Shreve is one of the toll keepers and master naturalist. She maintains and protects the site and curates the exhibits (figure 6). Visitors can see many relics and view a documentary of this canal in the museum (figure 7).

 

New Arena and Canal District

Recently, a new arena has been proposed to be developed in the so-called “canal district.” The city of Savannah envisions this place to become a new recreational and economic center of Savannah.[33] The budget of this project is around a hundred and forty million dollars, and it is proposed to be one hundred forty-nine thousand square feet large and will include approximately nine thousand seats inside of the new arena.[34]

As a native of China new to Savannah and studying Illustration at SCAD, I wanted to research the agricultural, environmental, and industrial history of the region to inform my artistic illustrations of place. My multi-layered illustration of the canal is an artistic interpretation of the site and its history, honoring the laborers who constructed the canal and paying homage to my own Chinese cultural and aesthetic background mixed with visions of the American South (figure 8).

[1] SOCanalMuseum, “Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center,” 2000, accessed May 11, 2018, http://www.socanalmuseum.com.

[2] Frederick B. Gates, “Canals,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, January 20, 2014, accessed May 10, 2018, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/canals.

[3] Lance E. Meta, ed., Canal History and Technology Proceeding (Easton, Pennsylvania: Canal History and Technology Press, 1955), 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] SOCanalMuseum, “Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center,” 2000, accessed May 11, 2018, http://www.socanalmuseum.com.

[6] Meta, 8.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Meta, 10.

[10] “DeWitt Clinton,” Wikipedia, accessed May 14, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeWitt_Clinton.

[11] Meta, 10.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Savannah. Wednesday Evening, March 31.,” Daily Savannah Republican, March 31, 1830, accessed May 20, 2018, http://savnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/savnewspapers-j2k/view?docId=bookreader/svr/svr1830/svr1830-0302.mets.xml#page/n0/mode/1up.

[17] Meta, 15.

[18] “The Handiest Man: Amos Scudder,” Freeman’s Rag, April 7, 2017, accessed May 14, 2018, https://www.freemansrag.com/historical-ruminations/the-handiest-man-amos-scudder.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Savannah-Ogeechee Canal,” Georgia Historical Society, accessed May 5, 2018, https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/savannah-ogeechee-canal/.

[21] Meta, 11.

[22] “Savannah. Wednesday Evening, March 31.,” Daily Savannah Republican, March 31, 1830, accessed May 20, 2018, http://savnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/savnewspapers-j2k/view?docId=bookreader/svr/svr1830/svr1830-0302.mets.xml#page/n0/mode/1up.

[23] Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, (Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society, 2010), DVD.

[24] Le Hardy and Julius Caesar, Yellow Fever: its history, causes, nature, pathology and treatment (Atlanta: J.P. Harrison, 1878).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Frederick B. Gates, “Canals,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, January 20, 2014, accessed May 10, 2018, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/canals.

[28] Meta, 18.

[29] Ibid., 23.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 24.

[32] Canal Connection, Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society Newsletter, April 2018.

[33] “Arena & Canal District,” Savannah, accessed May 10, 2018, https://www.savannahga.gov/1673/Arena-Canal-District.

[34] Ibid.

“Arena & Canal District,” Savannah. https://www.savannahga.gov/1673/Arena-Canal-District.

Canal Connection, Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society Newsletter, April 2018.

“DeWitt Clinton,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeWitt_Clinton.

Gates, Frederick B. “Canals,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, January 20, 2014. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/canals.

Hardy, Le and Julius Caesar. Yellow Fever: its history, causes, nature, pathology and treatment.    Atlanta: J.P. Harrison, 1878.

Meta, Lance E., ed. Canal History and Technology Proceeding. Easton, Pennsylvania: Canal History and Technology Press, 1955.

Savannah-Ogeechee Canal. Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society, 2010. DVD.

“Savannah-Ogeechee Canal,” Georgia Historical Society.https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/savannah-ogeechee-canal/.

“Savannah. Wednesday Evening, March 31.,” Daily Savannah Republican, March 31, 1830. http://savnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/savnewspapers-j2k/view?docId=bookreader/svr/svr1830/svr1830-0302.mets.xml#page/n0/mode/1up.

SOCanalMuseum. “Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center,” 2000. http://www.socanalmuseum.com.

“The Handiest Man: Amos Scudder,” Freeman’s Rag, April 7, 2017. https://www.freemansrag.com/historical-ruminations/the-handiest-man-amos-scudder.