Historically, Brunswick-Altamaha Canal misses the boat

The Brunswick News

Jan. 20–Acres of empty home lots sit overgrown with weeds beneath the northern side of the Sidney Lanier Bridge, remnants of grand designs for the opulent Liberty Harbor community.

But this development project that collapsed along with the U.S. economy in 2008 ranks only second, at best, for promises of local prosperity unfulfilled.

Surely, the Brunswick-Altamaha Canal is the best thing that never happened to the Golden Isles. Pieces of the waterway are still there today, a vegetation-clogged ditch that runs 12 miles from a tributary of the Altamaha River in northern Glynn County to the Turtle River near the Port of Brunswick. Most prominently, this 164-year-old canal crosses beneath Golden Isles Parkway via a drainage culvert. Motorists whiz past a roadside historical marker there by the scores each day.

The canal was to unite the best of everything from Brunswick and Darien, combining each coastal community with what it lacked. But the project was troubled from the start. Setbacks plagued the project for nearly 30 years, including wavering support, overreaching ambition, sweeping advances in transportation technology and the combined use of enslaved blacks and Irish immigrants in the labor force.

Darien sits at the mouth of the Altamaha River, which connected the city with inland trade in cotton and timber. Some 200 miles upstream, the Altamaha connects with the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. The Ocmulgee provided navigation as far as Macon; the Oconee led to Milledgeville, which was the state capital back then.

But Darien had a lousy port, requiring skilled local knowledge to navigate cargo vessels through Doboy Sound and into the open Atlantic. Still, based on its inland waterway connections, the Bank of Darien was a major financial institution in the mid 19th century.

On the other hand, Brunswick possessed an ideal, natural deepwater port. But Brunswick’s port led to nowhere, its waters spilling with little economic value into the surrounding salt marsh. Yet the port’s potential for oceangoing commerce had been recognized as early as 1789, when President George Washington named the Port of Brunswick one of five Ports of Entry to America. New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore were the others.

A canal was the obvious solution, connecting Darien’s mighty artery to valuable inland commerce with Brunswick’s deepwater port to the world. And a canal was especially appealing at the time. The opening of New York state’s Erie Canal in 1825 showed America the most practicable way at the time to move raw goods from the interior to the coast.

“Georgians too witnessed the tremendous amount of trade and revenue generated by the Erie Canal and watched as New York City quickly became America’s premier port and commercial city,” historian Frank B. Gates wrote in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Led by Retreat Plantation patriarch Thomas Butler King, a local contingent of planters and merchants received a state charter to build the Brunswick-Altamaha Canal in 1826. The project promptly went nowhere, languishing for another eight years.

The state legislature issued a new charter in 1834, again with King as the vanguard. As a Georgia state senator in the 1830s, King had connections in the capital. King recruited Loammi Baldwin Jr., a Harvard graduate and “the Father of Civil Engineering in America,” to survey the canal route. It was to be 54 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with a 12-foot-wide towpath along the eastern bank.

Construction soon got under way with high hopes for the future. Seeing the economic value of connecting inland materials with an open port, the project began with financial backing from a group of Boston investors.

That northern money shriveled up after the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that sunk the nation into a recession that would persist into the next decade. The project sputtered and stalled through the next 20 years.

By all accounts labor was an issue throughout. The brunt of the work originally was relegated to enslaved blacks from local plantations. Unskilled Irish immigrants were then brought in and finished the project. The plantation owners who backed the project preferred risking Irish immigrant lives in the hazardous labor of canal construction. It was strictly business.

“No doubt some planters believed it was more economic to use Irish laborers who had no intrinsic value as property for the sometimes dangerous work on the canal rather risk their own slaves,” wrote Timothy James Lockey in his book, “Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia, 1750-1860.”

The canal finally opened in June of 1854, according to one Savannah newspaper. By then, however, canals were fading from relevance. Railroads were making tracks across the nation, emerging as the fastest and most efficient means known to humankind for transporting goods and folks.

“Just how much the canal was used is a matter of question,” concluded the American Canal Society.

So, is Liberty Harbor a historic failure? Give it another 157 years, and get back to us.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.