HomeLifestyleSomething you might not have known: Augusta's aqueducts

Something you might not have known: Augusta’s aqueducts

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People who frequent the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area may be familiar with the large stone aqueducts off Goodrich Street, but many likely do not know who built the granite arches their original purpose. 

Some liken the aqueducts to Roman ruins, and technically speaking, that is exactly what they are. 

When engineers set about building the Augusta Canal in 1843, they ran into one major hurdle after another, according to the late historian Ed Cashin’s book “The Story of Augusta.” 

Some of those hurdles dealt with the finances of the project as well as designing a canal that operated completely on gravity to move the water, according to Cashin.

According to an article by T. R. Witcher in the May/June 2021 issue of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ journal, “Civil Engineering,” the building of the canal was “slow and primitive” at first, and some of the engineering challenges threatened to delay or cause the abandonment of the project due to surging costs. 

One huge issue was that Rae’s Creek flowed directly across the path of the proposed waterway. Due to the much lower grade of Rae’s Creek, it was a mathematical impossibility to incorporate the creek into the new industrial waterway, according to the “Civil Engineering” article, “Powering the South: the Augusta Canal.” 

The engineers devised a clever strategy; they would route Rae’s Creek under the canal. The engineers devised a wooden aqueduct that would allow the creek to flow uninterrupted into the Savannah River, according to Witcher’s article. 

It was a simple, yet brilliant solution. 

Railroad tracks that lead past the old Sibley Mill and Confederate Powder Works overlook the waterfall and swimming hole. Photo by St. Julian Cox III.

However, once the canal was in service, it did not take very long for the timbers used in the aqueduct to become waterlogged, and by 1850, it became clear that using wood to transport one waterway over another was a bad decision, according to blueprints in the city engineering department’s archives. 

If the wooden structure collapsed, which eventually would happen, the city would have a giant mess to clean up. According to Witcher’s article, the structure began to lean, leak and caused the water level of the canal to drop to barely ten feet. 

The city, as well as the private investors in the canal, decided to hire a group of Italian stonemasons who lived in the North, to build a more permanent structure, according to Cashin’s book. 

The masons looked to the ancient engineering heritage of the Roman Empire to build the new stone aqueducts. Several unused blocks that remain around the structure bear evidence of the hand-drilled holes used to cut the blocks into the right specifications so that the blocks would fit with minimal usage of mortar. 

Even in the midst of all the factories nearby, the aqueduct area became a popular recreation area. 

By 1872, according to the late Augusta historian, Edward J. Cashin, the canal was becoming obsolete. Due to its relatively small size, it could not produce enough power for the growing needs of the time. 

The city brought in Charles Olmstead, an engineer working on the Erie Canal, to devise a plan to enlarge and straighten the canal and Olmstead agreed to a budget of $371,000, according to Cashin. 

Olmstead would spend double the budgeted amount, and the final cost for the improvement was around $17 million in today’s money. 

The aqueducts at the Augusta Canal. Photo by St. Julian Cox

Modern lore holds that Charles Olmstead was either the stepson or nephew of famed landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted; however, biographical sources indicate the two were not related, and the spelling of their last names is the first clue.  

Frederick Olmsted was a landscape artist best known for the design of Central Park in New York City. Charles Olmstead was a mechanical engineer, which is a completely different occupation from someone who designs flower gardens. The only thing the two men have in common is a similar-sounding name. 

In an effort to save money, Charles Olmstead decided that, rather than enlarge the aqueducts, they would plug them up, effectively creating a dam at Rae’s Creek. Creating a dam would not only make the aqueducts obsolete, it would drastically raise the water level by creating a lake that could expel extra water directly into the canal, which was something the original engineers apparently didn’t consider, according to Cashin. 

In sealing up the aqueducts, Olmstead relied on Italian-American craftsmen, according to Cashin. 

After the creation of Lake Olmstead, the so-called “Achydocks” fell out of favor as a recreation spot, and a century later, hardly anyone even remembered that the old aqueducts even existed. 

A waterfall at the Augusta Canal. Photo by St. Julian Cox III

Even though the Harrisburg neighborhood remained the home of factory workers, many of the factories that made things such as pistols and silk faded away, leaving only a handful of textile mills. The aqueduct area became a prime area for illegal dumping. 

By the late 1980s, the aqueduct area was ridden with trash, and the impressive structure began to look like an ancient ruin. 

At one time, the lagoon at the aqueducts had the entire front end of a 1950s-era Chevrolet sticking up out of the water. Discarded roofing tiles, old bed springs, car batteries, used tin cans and glass bottles lay strewn everywhere and the entire area was dotted with squatter cabins and homeless encampments. 

In 2008, a volunteer group, which called itself the First Saturday Initiative, led by former Augusta Commissioners Joe Bowles, Joe Jackson and Andy Cheek along with current and then Commissioner Alvin Mason, committed to cleaning the area and restoring it to its original beauty.  

According to the Augusta Landfill, over 12 tons of trash was removed from the area by the volunteer group which met on the first Saturday of every month for several years. 

Today, Aqueduct Park and its natural waterfall and lagoon are popular for swimmers to enjoy a cold dip in the spring-fed waters, and it is not at all uncommon to see couples posing for their wedding or engagement photos at the waterfall. 

…And that is something you might not have known. 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Correct me if I am wrong, but the Canal Authority is severely underfunded. Dayton Sherrouse and his staff will not be able to oversee many of its current tasks, including upkeep. Hopefully, our esteemed county commissioners have a plan for the upkeep of the canal. North Augusta’s Greenway should be a model for our county.

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