Augusta, Georgia – The Garden City

Savannah River at Augusta, Georgia courtesy Visit Augusta

Savannah River at Augusta, Georgia courtesy Visit Augusta

Founded in 1736 on the western bank of the Savannah River, Augusta, Georgia, became the second town of the 13th British colony. General James Edward Oglethorpe, the colony’s founder, ordered the settlement and chose its location at the head of navigation of the Savannah River. Oglethorpe’s vision was to establish an interior trading post for purchasing furs and other commodities from Native Americans to compete with New Savannah Town, a small outpost on the South Carolina side of the river.

Fort Augusta, Georgia

Fort Augusta, Georgia

Augusta thrived as a trading post from the beginning, with several South Carolina traders moving their base of operations to the new settlement. By 1739, a fort was completed, and the official surveyor of the colony, Noble Jones, laid out the town. Its colonial plan was similar but not as elaborate as the one used in Savannah. Augusta’s plan focused on one large square or plaza, four streets deep and three wide. Fort Augusta was adjacent to the 40 town lots on the west side near the river. Augusta named two of its original streets for Georgia’s colonial governors: Reynolds Street for John Reynolds and Ellis Street for Henry Ellis. These streets are still prominent features of the Downtown Augusta, Broad Street, and Pinched Gut Historic Districts.

As traders populated the town, they brought their wives and began to have children. The desire for a more civilized atmosphere dictated the need for a church. Georgia petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as a British colony for a minister after constructing a church building in 1749. The first minister, the Reverend Jonathan Copp, arrived in 1751 and began conducting services according to the rites of the Church of England. After Georgia’s division into parishes in 1756, the Augusta District fell into St. Paul’s Parish, and the Augusta church became known as St. Paul’s Church.

St. Paul's Church, Augusta, Georgia by Annalisa Frasier, courtesy Wikimedia

St. Paul’s Church, Augusta, Georgia, by Annalisa Frazier, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

During the French and Indian War, refugees from the surrounding countryside came to Augusta, taking shelter in the fort and church. The building suffered significant damage and was replaced in the 1760s. Soldiers coming to Georgia during the war spread the word about fresh lands, and in the early 1770s, new settlers arrived to claim land grants in the surrounding countryside. Many had formerly been tobacco planters in Virginia and the Carolinas. They transported their tobacco culture to Georgia, where tobacco soon became the main cash crop of the colony. In approximately 1797, one of the last important tobacco merchants in Augusta built the Ezekiel Harris House (also known as the Harris-Pearson-Walker House), which is representative of that nearly forgotten economic factor in Georgia’s history.

Augusta played a significant role in the American Revolution as one of the westernmost towns in the 13 British colonies. The first of the two battles fought here, the Siege of the White House, resulted in the hanging of 13 patriot soldiers by Tory forces under Colonel Thomas Browne. After the second, called the Siege of Augusta, patriot forces, under General “Light Horse” Harry Lee, retook the town. The British erected Fort Cornwallis on the site of the former Fort Augusta and, in the process, destroyed St. Paul’s Church. After the Revolution, a new church, built between 1786 and 1789 and lasting until 1820, served all denominations, although much of the time, it had a resident Episcopal minister. The present building, the fifth on the site, dates from 1918, after a terrible fire destroyed 30 city blocks in 1916.

Meadow Garden in Augusta, Georgia still stands and today is a museum.

Meadow Garden in Augusta, Georgia, still stands and today is a museum.

After the Revolution, Augusta became the temporary capital of the new state of Georgia between 1786 and 1795, and many government leaders moved to the town. One of the most notable was George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who built his home, Meadow Garden, on what was then the outskirts of town. Walton held many important offices, including governor and judge. Walton Way, named in his honor, is the main artery through the Summerville Historic District, a suburban village originally laid out by Walton in the 1790s. In 1799, Christopher Fitzsimmons, a prosperous Charleston shipbuilder, built another outlying plantation house on his productive Savannah River plantation, the Fitzsimmons-Hampton House on Sand Bar Ferry Road. Henry Turknett lived at College Hill, another 1790s house, on property once owned by George Walton, who hoped to have the University of Georgia built there. Turknett Springs, located behind the house, provided Augusta’s first municipal drinking water, piped down the hill in hollowed-out logs beginning in the 1820s.

The town continued to grow in size and population, governed by a group of Trustees of the Academy of Richmond County. President George Washington’s visit in 1791 was a highlight of this period. Legend has it that Augustans planted the large ginkgo tree in his honor at the proposed site of the Richmond County Courthouse, constructed in 1801 and now known as the Old Government House. The Trustees of the Academy built a new school building in 1802, the old Academy of Richmond County.

Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia by Annalisa Frazier, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, by Annalisa Frazier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Augusta’s first suburb, part of the Augusta Downtown Historic District, was originally the village of Springfield. It was developed on lands confiscated from James Grierson, a Tory, during the Revolutionary War. Captain Leonard Marbury laid out lots there on the west side of Augusta and built some houses. Augusta included Springfield within the city limits at the time of its incorporation in 1798. Because of their displacement from the Silver Bluff Plantation in South Carolina during the Revolution, a large population of free African Americans settled in Springfield by 1787. They established the Springfield Baptist Church, one of the oldest independent black congregations in the United States.

Augusta continued to grow, fulfilling the prediction of William Bartram, the naturalist, who said it would become the metropolis of Upper Georgia during his visit in 1774. Robert Mills, America’s first native-born architect, won the competition to design the First Presbyterian Church built between 1809 and 1812. Nicholas Ware built Ware’s Folly (Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art) in 1818 in the Federal style, reportedly for the astounding cost of $40,000.

As Georgia expanded westward and the states of Alabama and Mississippi attracted many prosperous planters, Augusta’s economy stagnated. The Charleston and Hamburg Railroad in South Carolina reached a point directly across the Savannah River from the heart of downtown Augusta in 1832. In 1833 the Georgia Railroad chartered in Athens, Georgia, began building westward from Augusta toward an unnamed settlement that would eventually become Atlanta. Constructing the railroad attracted an Irish immigrant population to Augusta, which has an important presence in the city today. Many Roman Catholics joined the well-established Church of the Most Holy Trinity, founded in 1810 by French Catholics who settled in Augusta after the slave revolts on the island of San Domingo in the 1790s. For years the church’s name was Saint Patrick after its patron saint, in deference to its large Irish population.

Augusta Canal Today courtesy Wikipedia

Augusta Canal Today courtesy Wikipedia.

The railroad did not ensure Augusta’s future, as the tug on Americans to move westward grew ever stronger, but other factors positively impacted the city. Spurred by the invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, local farmers grew upland cotton in the surrounding countryside, making Augusta the center of a large inland cotton market. They shipped their cotton to the port of Savannah via cotton boats down the Savannah River or overland to Charleston on the South Carolina Railroad. Henry Cumming advanced the idea of manufacturing cotton goods locally. He proposed building a canal for water power following the example of Lowell, Massachusetts. Constructed in 1845, the Augusta Canal attracted flour mills, cotton mills, ironworks, and other manufacturing establishments along its banks. By the time of the Civil War, Augusta was one of the few industrial centers in the South. The Historic Augusta Canal and Industrial District represent the economic salvation of Augusta from the 1840s until well into the 20th century.

Augusta prospered again on the eve of the Civil War, as evidenced by several buildings and homes constructed during that period. Noted architect Charles Blaney Cluskey, who lived in Augusta then, designed the Old Medical College of Georgia, built on Telfair Street in 1835 to house the state’s first medical school. The Brahe House, a fine example of a typical house type in Augusta known as the Sand Hills Cottage, was created in 1850 by German immigrant and jeweler Frederick Brahe. Later it became the first house in town to have electric lighting. Suburban Summerville Historic District became the summer residence of choice for wealthy Augustans, who believed it was healthier due to its higher elevation and lack of mosquitoes. Two fine houses there are the 1849 Reid-Jones-Carpenter House and the Gould-Weed House, circa 1860. Dennis Redmond, a noted horticultural editor, constructed Fruitlands in 1853 on his Washington Road plantation, which became famous under the ownership of the Berckmans family as a fine nursery and still more famous in the 20th century as the clubhouse for the Augusta National Golf Club.

Confederate Powder Works, Augusta, Georgia

Confederate Powder Works, Augusta, Georgia.

The Confederate government established the Confederate States Powder Works on the Augusta Canal in 1862 at the present site of Sibley Mill. The original arsenal buildings remain largely intact as the centerpiece of Augusta State University, with the Commandant’s House, known as the Stephen Vincent Benét House, used as an administration building. During the Civil War, gunpowder made at the powder works was moved to the arsenal to pack munitions sent to soldiers in the field.

Augusta served as a major center of the Confederacy, providing cotton goods, shoes, guns, munitions, food, and many other commodities. In addition, the city was a religious center of the South, hosting meetings for the formation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America at St. Paul’s Church and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States at First Presbyterian Church. The meeting took place there at the invitation of its pastor, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, who lived with his family in the parsonage, the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home. Next door to the future President’s home was the parsonage of First Christian Church, home of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Lamar. Wilson and Lamar, both sons of prominent Augusta pastors, were best friends as children.

Following the Civil War, Augusta’s economy struggled but rebounded with the enlargement and expansion of the Augusta Canal in 1875. Several large new cotton mills were built along its banks. The old 18th-century village of Harrisburg gained new life as a large mill village grew around the Harris-Pearson-Walker House. Continuing expansion to the west, the City of Augusta completed its first major annexation in 1880 by taking in what is now the Harrisburg-West End Historic District.

Military presence at the Augusta, Georgia Arsenal during the Civil War.

Military presence at the Augusta, Georgia, Arsenal during the Civil War.

Many of Augusta’s Irish immigrants lived in a section of town then known as Dublin. The surrounding streets developed as enclaves for various immigrant groups in the 19th century, including African Americans. By the turn of the 20th century, because of Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation, this area, the Laney-Walker North Historic District, became predominantly black. A few blocks to the south is the Bethlehem Historic District, created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries exclusively by and for African Americans. The Sand Hills Historic District, adjacent to Summerville, is another historically black neighborhood that developed parallel to a predominantly white business and residential area after the Civil War.

As the old city continued to expand, most religious denominations realized the need to establish a second congregation in the city’s western end and often a third or fourth in the suburban areas. Consequently, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart established at Greene and McKinney (13th) streets in 1874 became the second Roman Catholic parish in Augusta. A magnificent new building was constructed between 1898 and 1900 beside the original church, which became a school. Greene Street Presbyterian Church, founded in 1875, was an attempt by the First Presbyterian congregation to expand its influence. Curtis Baptist Church, also founded in the 1870s, and Saint James Methodist Church, dating from the 1850s, were other examples of efforts to evangelize in the city. Most denominations also established a church presence in Laney — Walker, Bethlehem, Harrisburg, Summerville, and Sand Hills in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Sibley Cotton Mill on the Augusta Canal in 1913 by Detroit Publishing.

Sibley Cotton Mill on the Augusta Canal in 1913 by Detroit Publishing.

Set up in 1874, the Augusta Cotton Exchange moved to an impressive permanent headquarters building constructed in 1887 in the Queen Anne style. With the expansion of the Augusta Canal, the city was once again a thriving center of a cotton economy. Cotton warehouses lined Reynolds Street between St. Paul’s Church on the east and 9th Street on the west. The last cotton warehouses, now converted to restaurants and shops, are still found along 9th Street in the Augusta Downtown Historic District. Mills along the Augusta Canal manufactured cotton goods, including the antebellum Augusta Factory (razed in the 1960s), Enterprise Mill, Sutherland Mill, King Mill, and Sibley Mill.

A horse-drawn streetcar was first implemented in 1866, connecting the neighborhoods that now comprise the Pinched Gut, Augusta Downtown, Broad Street, Harrisburg — West End, and Summerville Historic Districts. In 1890, electrified streetcars provided more access between Augusta’s neighborhoods and its suburbs. This development also sparked Augusta’s tourist industry with the construction of the original Bon Air Hotel in Summerville in 1889-90. The Bon Air attracted wealthy northerners who wanted to escape harsh winters. Soon, Summerville had a lively cottage industry of winter boarding houses.

Forrest Hills Hotel and Golf Course, Augusta, Georgia

Forrest Hills Hotel and Golf Course, Augusta, Georgia.

The Partridge Inn emerged from one of these boarding houses, evolving into its present state over a period of 30 years. Pleased with the southern climate, some winter visitors built their own homes or remodeled or enlarged existing cottages in Summerville. Golf came to the village when the hotel established the Bon Air Links as a recreational opportunity for its guests. This course, originally sand, became the Augusta Country Club in 1899. Forrest Hills Hotel and Golf Course was laid out west of Summerville in the 1920s and had a complete automobile suburb featuring curving brick streets and Georgian Revival estates on large lots.

Founded in the early 1930s, Augusta National Golf Club is on the Fruitlands property on Washington Road west of Augusta on the northern border of Summerville. Also, in the 1930s, the club established the Master’s Golf Tournament, which has become golf’s premier event in the United States.

A military town since its beginning as a military outpost in the 1730s, Augusta served as a place of refuge in the French and Indian War and passed back and forth between American and British hands during the Revolution. The city hosted a United States Arsenal beginning in 1819. During the Civil War, it was a center of military preparedness, supplies, industrial output, and support of Confederate troops from the domestic front. The United States government established Camp McKenzie at Augusta during the Spanish-American War and Camp Hancock in World War I.

In 1940, shortly before the United States entered World War II, the Federal Government founded Camp Gordon about ten miles from downtown Augusta in south Richmond County in an area historically known as Pinetucky. After the war started, Augusta became a major military town again. Available space became additional housing, with many antebellum and Victorian homes converted into apartment buildings. The resort hotels became year-round commercial hotels. Soldiers in uniform were everywhere. The old arsenal buzzed with activity with high security around the clock. Augusta would never be quite the same.

After the war, subdivisions began spreading to the west, south, and east of town. Camp Gordon became a permanent installation, Fort Gordon, the home of the United States Army Signal Corps. In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savannah River upstream from Augusta to curtail the periodic flooding and generate electricity. The U.S. Government also built the Savannah River Plant in nearby Aiken and Barnwell Counties, South Carolina. These three governmental expansions of post-World War II Augusta generated an economic boom reflected in the modern commercial buildings constructed in the Augusta Downtown Historic District. Yet this economic boost for the region eventually caused downtown Augusta to decline, particularly after two shopping malls with approximately 1,000,000 square feet opened within one week of one another in 1978.

Today, Augusta’s downtown is on the rebound, with shops and restaurants opening on Broad Street and near the river, and many facades of historic buildings have been restored. An Artists Row helped stimulate new energy and became the impetus for a monthly street festival, First Friday. A reclaimed levee built in the 1910s to hold back the worst floodwaters from the Savannah River is now a park called the Riverwalk. Between 5th and 10th streets, the park has outdoor historical exhibits, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, to interpret the city’s history. Regular festivals are held near the Riverwalk and on a new green space called the Augusta Common in the 800 block of Broad Street. The Augusta Common features a statue of Georgia and Augusta founder James Edward Oglethorpe. A second statue of soul singer James Brown of Augusta overlooks the Common from Broad Street.

Augusta, Georgia Today

Augusta, Georgia Today

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2024.

Also See:

Civil War Battles of Georgia

Georgia – The Peach State

Georgia Photo Galleries

James Edward Oglethorpe

Three of the Most Celebrated Gardens in American History

Source: National Park Service