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Column — Bulloch History

Importance of Ogeechee Canal to area’s economy

In 1824 the Georgia legislature granted Ebenezer Jenckes a charter to build what would be called the Savannah and Ogeechee Canal. In 1825 the charter was expanded to expand the canal to include the Altamaha River. After Jenckes decided not to connect the canal to the Altamaha River, his investors withdrew their support in 1836, calling it “The Folly.”
Irishman Edward Hall Gill, who had helped build the Erie Canal, oversaw the building of the canal. In 1829 the Savannah to Ogeechee canal was finished, at a cost of between $175,000 and $190,000. Fifteen miles of the canal to the Ogeechee was constructed using mostly local slaves and Irish itinerant laborers.
Designed with six locks, its two tidal gates were metal, but three of the four lift locks were built from wood. The canal was 48 feet wide and five feet deep. Jenckes, still a large investor, took a party up the entire length of the finished canal on his barge, the “Alexander Telfair”. Telfair called Jenckes “the Genius who united the Wood Nymphs with the Water Gods”.
Farmers from the interior counties (including Bulloch and Bryan) began hauling their products to the canal. Wagonloads of cotton, tobacco, rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables plied the old roads to the canal. Lumbermen floated huge oak trees down the Ogeechee River (with their roots intact) to be put on the canal’s flatboats. From there, they would be carried to Savannah’s shipyards, where the root ball would become the ornate carved bows of many a ship.
Because of its success, Georgia’s Bureau of Public Works considered building a canal from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. William C. Daniel and his Mexico Atlantic Company were given the right to build the cross Georgia canal linking the Atlantic Ocean (via the Savannah, Ogeechee and Altamaha Rivers) with the Gulf of Mexico (via the Flint and Canoochee Rivers).
The canal first closed in November 1836, after it was sold at a Sheriffs Sale. One of the canal’s major contractors, Amos Scudder, bought the majority of its stock and rebuilt the canal between 1840 and 1850, using brick instead of wood. Then came Sherman’s “March To The Sea.” The Confederate Army had two decisive battles at Shaw’s Bridge and Dillon’s Bridge, which heavily damaged the canals.
It reopened again after repairs, and enjoyed several decades of commercial success. One of the largest sawmills in the nation, Giles and Company, opened at the former Vale Royale Plantation. William McAlpins’ Savannah Patent Brick Company, maker of the famous “Savannah Gray” bricks, was built right alongside the canal. A well-known Savannah local, Captain Sheftall, even started taking customers upriver to fish at Ogeechee Pond, all the while providing musical entertainment and refreshments.
The effect of the Canal’s increase in commercial traffic on the Central of Georgia Railroad’s business was felt almost immediately. As such, the Central immediately took steps to remove the competition by buying the canal’s Savannah wharves and warehouses and removing the Savannah River huge tidal gate. This effectively closed the canal down for good.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look at Bulloch County's historical past. E-mail Roger at roger dodger53@hotmail.com

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