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Savannah Rapids Memories

At the entrance to Columbia County’s popular Savannah Rapids Park there is a pyramid-shaped monument, erected just 20 years ago, to honor the efforts that helped create what has become one of the region’s number one recreation areas. There are bicycle trails, a sprawling conference center, scenic vistas through moss shrouded trees, historic buildings, playgrounds and places to launch kayaks into the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal.

It is a place of stunning beauty, where people can exercise, enjoy nature, hold a class reunion—even get married. However, it is also a place steeped in controversy and a scenic treasure threatened first by neglect and later by competing uses, political spats and conflicting priorities.

In short, it is the park that almost wasn’t. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the artfully designed, wood and glass Savannah Rapids Pavilion that offers visitors an opportunity to gaze across the river—and enjoy the same hypnotic sounds of rushing water that greeted Indian tribes 4,000 years ago.

When the building opened in February 1993, at a cost of almost $2.7 million, it marked a successful settlement to disputes that included a plan to site a golf course along the canal, a fight between governments over drinking water and how best to preserve a historic resource like the canal and still allow it to fulfill its industrial roles. From those stresses, the Augusta Canal Authority worked to draft a master plan that led to the creation of the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, operated under the auspices of the National Park Service but governed locally by its owners and users.

A citizens group called Savannah Waterways Forum also helped push the movement for preserving the canal, ultimately scuttling an effort by a California developer who wanted to lease much of the city-owned canal frontage for his golf project. There were also petitions and a lawsuit, seeking to stop Columbia County’s plan to build its Savannah Rapids Pavilion. Even Augusta’s then-mayor, the late Charles DeVaney, made an unprecedented appeal in March 1992 asking the neighboring county to halt the project.

“I’ve been in office 10 years and I think I know how to listen to the voice of the people,” DeVaney told The Augusta Chronicle. “This is one of those.”
Officials in Columbia County, however, who were financing the project through sales tax dollars, would not budge. “The mayor’s got to do what the mayor’s got to do,” said Columbia County Commissioner Lillian Johnson (now Lillian Smith), who was in office during the pavilion’s construction. “I haven’t seen or heard anything that gives me a viable reason to halt this project.” By the time the building opened, it had already attracted broad interest from major corporate visitors to the Masters Golf Tournament, who leased its rooms and amenities even before the paint was dry.

Five years after its opening, the pavilion had hosted nearly 400,000 guests and more than 3,000 events. The story of the park, though, goes back much farther than the 20 years that have passed since the conference center opened, paving the way for a host of newer improvements that have secured the entire headgates area’s future as a preserved historic and natural resource site.

The canal, built in 1845 and expanded 30 years later, was designed as an industrial hydropower structure. It helped Augusta’s mills power textile looms and later made electricity. Today the Canal Authority still gets much of its revenue from hydropower sales, and most Augustans are drinking canal water when they turn their faucets.

The headgates area, far from town, was known for its beauty as far back as the 1800s, when the “city lock” was a destination for partygoers drawn by the romance and intrigue of the ancient forested bluffs. Its popularity led to the construction of a wooden dance pavilion at the canal’s edge, where generations of Augustans danced, laughed and loved. A dispatch posted in The Augusta Chronicle July 9, 1878, tells of one such outing by the Irish Volunteers, a military regiment active in the Civil War: “Yesterday morning at 7 o’clock, the Irish Volunteers and a number of invited guests left the canal basin on the steamer Wallace Wheless, with the large dance boat in tow. There were about one hundred and fifty people on the two boats. A string band was in attendance and furnished delightful music during the voyage up the canal. When the party reached the Locks an excellent breakfast was served up. The band soon afterwards struck up and the dancing commenced and continued throughout the day. At 12 o’clock, the Augusta Estes left the basin with about 60 more people on board, and arrived at half past one. At 3 o’clock, a capital barbecue, which has been prepared under the superintendrence of Messrs. Primrose and Allen, was served up and was enjoyed by everybody.”

The canal lock’s social popularity continued to escalate, as reported in many instances, including this June 6, 1890, missive from The Augusta Chronicle’s society news: “The canal is a busy scene these warm afternoons and evenings, and pleasure craft of every imaginable shape and size ply on its bosom as music and laughter echo back from its shore. Yesterday at 3 o’clock a party of about 30 young people boarded one of Mr. Charles Bohler’s pretty boats and enjoyed a ride to the locks. Bearden’s band was on board and rendered many of the choicest selections from their repertoire.

The affair was complimentary of Miss Mary McGraw, of Boston, who had been in the city several weeks visiting friends. She is a sister to Superintendent McGaw, of Algernon Mills. The boat Restless went up yesterday with a cozy, comfortable party fore and aft. Beyond the chaperones, everyone was commissary, engineer and pilot. At nightfall the party went up to the locks to enjoy a dance. The Locks are now engaged for a party every night until next Wednesday.”

Later, in a June 20, 1942, column from a storyteller who called himself “Billy Barnes,” the addition of newer amenities, including a barbecue pit and dining shed, were mentioned: “The place became the most popular picnic spot around the city. Crowds would gather at the 13th Street Bridge, get, into a big canal boat and go to the locks. Moonlight excursions were fine. I remember coming down the canal one night from the locks. We had been dancing in the pavilion, and the string band played softly as the boat slipped through the water. Everyone on board was tired, the light of the full moon seemed to cast a spell and we drifted along, without speaking.”

As the years passed, and the area was maintained as an industrial water structure, and not as an official “park,” the fine old dance pavilion and other structures fell into disrepair. There were increasing issues with vandalism and littering. The city also struggled with potential liability from periodic drownings in the dangerous waters near the headgates. Ultimately, the area was gated and locked—and opened to a few visitors only occasionally. The only supervision was a live-in caretaker.

One of the last of those resident “lock keepers” was Bill Towns, a city of Augusta utilities worker who spent almost two decades at the Lock & Dam, when the privilege of living in the old caretaker’s cottage was a cherished part of his pay.

In those days, the area was largely deserted, aside from an occasional angler. The lock and dam area, back then, was far off the beaten path, with poorly maintained roads and no nearby stores or gas stations. “We don’t go out much,” an elderly Towns said, in a 1987 interview with The Augusta Chronicle. “We don’t need to, really. We stock a lot of groceries. The view is nice and the fishing is good. Otherwise, there’s always work to do.”

His “office” was the linear gatehouse building that harbored the iron wheels and machinery that were adjusted to determine how much of the river’s flow would be diverted into the canal. The area wasn’t exactly a park back then, but it was still something with great potential. The old dance pavilion, in particular, was one of Towns’s favorite features. It was neglected and abandoned, even in those years, and came close to being razed on multiple occasions. “The wood is rotted,” he said, sadly. “It’s too pretty to tear down, but the timbers aren’t good enough to let people on it.”

The open-air dance pavilion had long since faded from its glory days. Inscriptions etched with pen knives into the sagging, windworn timbers were mute evidence of  a splendid past. “R.M.W.” was there on April 4, 1897, and “Teri” had her name inscribed there, perhaps by a suitor, on May 15, 1907. “R.H. Fleming” carved his name into a bench on July 26, 1904.

For Towns, the history and beauty of the Lock and Dam were merely the products of its past. In that interview more than a quarter-century ago, the man who called the place home for much of his adult life also expressed his hope for its future. “It’s a beautiful place, especially as a park,” he said, adding sadly, “but that’s not really its function.” Today, in spite of its continuing use as a water supply and hydropower canal, the headgates area has come full circle as a park, which has helped cement its identity and assure its future.

Since the Pavilion’s opening, the area has progressed with the eventual renovation of the lock keeper’s cottage, where Towns once lived with his wife and three dogs, into a state certified visitors center.

Also restored are the old dance pavilion, barbecue pit and cookhouse, with added amenities that include public docks, bicycle and canoe/kayak rentals, expanded parking, more bicycle trails, a pedestrian bridge, picnic and cookout shelters and many other features.

When Columbia County’s elected officials dedicated the monument to the Savannah Rapids Pavilion 20 years ago, they also made some provisions for the future. Inside, a time capsule containing items of that period was sealed in concrete, with instructions that it be opened on Dec. 31, 2042. “It is requested,” the inscription adds, “that the new County Commission place a new time capsule and open it in 2092 one hundred years after the Pavilion was constructed.” 


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