About 400 million years ago today’s site of Columbus, GA had an ocean view. Crumpled mountains were formed when a piece of Africa broke off and crashed into the mainland forming present day Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Carolina. As these once alp sized mountains eroded, many of their minerals were leached, but leaving behind the iron that stains Piedmont clays orange today. (Willoughby)
Today’s coastal plain was underwater for seventy-five million years. (Willoughby)
Today the Chattahoochee begins high in the Blue Ridge Mountains at about 3500 feet. (Willoughby)
Around 1,000 B.C. the Indians of the Chattahoochee began to place great significance on the burial of their dead, building enormous mounds requiring thousands of hours of labor by the entire tribe. One of the largest of these in the valley was constructed at the village of Kolomoki. It’s approximate population of 2,000 carried dirt to the mound basket by basket, and required as many as 875,000 man hours to complete. Oddly, no one knows what happened to this Woodland civilization. (Willoughby)
The next age of man in the region, the Mississipian culture from 700 AD to 1400 were the first to systematically cultivate the land. Beans, squash, pumpkins and most important, corn. There are no less than 16 significant Mississipian sites along the Chattahoochee. Six of these are in present day Alabama. Two in Houston County (Omussee Creek and Spann’s Landing) three near Eufala (Reeves, Lampley mound and Lynn’s Fish Pond) and the Abercrombie Mound in Russell County. (Willoughby) Clarence Bloomfield Moore documented 21 mound sites from Columbus, GA to the Appalachicola River. “At the mouth of almost every one of the major streams there was a mound.” (Frank Schnell)
The Creek Federation came about as a result of the ravages and epidemic that swept through the tribes following the first contact with Europeans. The few surviving members migrated forming new tribal groups and over time speaking primarily Muscogean dialects. The Europeans called this network of tribes (bound by trade, friendships and defense pacts) the Creeks because of their tendency to locate their towns on the banks of rivers. (Willoughby)
Spain claimed the lands of the Chattahoochee and as British traders penetrated the region they responded to this threat by burning Indian towns trading with the British.
16 miles south of present day Phenix City Spain built Fort Appalachicola in 1689. It was hoped to stop British traders and strengthen the alliance with the Appalachicola Indians. However, the Indians simply moved to Ocmulgee to continue trade and the fort was abandoned.
Coweta and Cuseta sat on opposite banks of the Chattahoochee Falls dividing the Piedmont and Coastal Plains. The falls were named for the town of Coweta which was the political capital of the lower Creeks and sat south of present day Phenix City, just one mile from the river. Thousands of Creek inhabitants lived here in the the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. It was considered the capital of politics and war. Today, Alabama State Docks sits just north of the former Coweta site.
Cusseta was the peace and religious capital on the eastern bank where Lawson Air Field at Fort Benning sits today. Each of these two towns were the largest of the Lower Creek Nation.
The Muscogees absorbed many tribes, partly through pacts and partly through conquest. As European aggressions increased, this confederation grew stronger out of a realization they had a common enemy. (Willoughby)
In 1826 the Creeks were forced to cede all lands east of the Chattahoochee. Eufaula in Alabama was still a Creek village at this time. As whites began moving into this land as well, the Lower Creeks asked for help from US Marshalls to remove the settlers. Soldiers at Fort Mitchell actually removed the new squatters, but two years later in 1828 a new treaty would allow settlers into these western Chattahoochee lands for good.
Eventually the Creeks were pushed to war and burned the Georgia town of Roanoke. In an effort to quell the uprising, Alabama militia soundly defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Hobdy’s Bridge on the Pea River (Choctawhatchee Basin). This resulted in the Treaty of Cusseta which permanently removed the Creeks and other tribes from all lands east of the Mississippi. Their tragic removal is commonly known as the Trail of Tears.
A dispute was begun between GA and AL over the first bridge to cross the Chattahoochee in Columbus. Many years later a US Supreme Court ruling granted Georgia jurisdiction to the high-water mark on both sides of the river. This decision had serious economic impacts for Alabama settlements for many decades.
The first dam to touch both banks of the Chattahoochee was the Eagle Mill Dam just above Columbus. AL felt they should be compensated. In 1855 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Georgia as described above.
The city of Columbus was established by the Georgia Legislature in 1828 as a trading town at the head of navigable waters on the Chattahoochee just below the fall line. In the 1850s Columbus ranked second only to Richmond, VA as an industrial center in the south. Saw, grain and textile mills had learned how to harness the power of the river for energy. Frederick Law Olmstead, famed designer of the Central Park, on a tour of the South for the New York Times in 1854 declared Columbus “the largest manufacturing town, south of Richmond.” Columbus, which had already established itself as a center of the cotton trade in the early 19th century, quickly became a center of industrial trade with the establishment of many mills providing energy for textile plants.
Eufala was originally named Irwinton until 1843 for the famous and wealthy planter General William Irwin. He is reputed to have owned 50,000 acres of land between Shorterville and Eufaula. But in 1856 the general was returning to Eufala on the steamer HS Smith when it caught fire. Irwin jumped overboard just before a plank was run ashore, and he drowned. It was said that had it not been for the $60,000 in gold in his money belt he would not have lost his life. Of course this amount of gold would have weighed over two hundred pounds, and it is unlikely he was carrying such a heavy fortune. (Willoughby) One of the largest concentrations of Antebellum homes stands in old Eufala. Both Eufala and Columbia began as cotton shipping towns.
200 riverboats served on the Chattahoochee. The Chattahoochee flowed through the richest cottonlands and depended upon the riverboats for transport to markets.
Like the Alabama, the mid 1850s saw a rapid decline in steamboat cotton transport due to the encroaching age of the railroad.
Horace King was a slave and master bridge builder whose owner had him build the first bridge to connect Columbus with Phenix City (which set of the controversy between the states described above). He designed and supervised the construction of at least six bridges across the Chattahoochee. Kings owner set him free after he successfully completed a bridge in a given time (his freedom being the reward of the wager). King went on to build many more bridges with his sons and was also twice a member of the Alabama legislature “with the good wishes of southern whites” during the reconstruction period.
Steamboat Lore on the Chattahoochee
The Chattahoochee steamboat era was never so bustling as the decades following the Civil War. Though the war had taken its toll on many river port cities like Appalachicola, FL, Abbeville, AL, and Fort Gaines, GA, innovations in steamboat design turned them into the floating palaces that many historians know and love.
The Naiad, named after the water nymphs of ancient lore, who lived and gave life to bodies of water, was the best known steamer to ever ply the river.Dinners were so well prepared that one traveler said a meal aboard the Naiad was “one of the rare moments of life when trouble and worry did not dare intrude.”
Other steamboat luxuries included playing cards, shooting alligators from the guardrail, black american jazz bands, and in later years some steamboats tugged dancefloors behind the boat. Steamboats became both a form of travel and a form of entertainment. Some began going on day long picnics to scenic islands in the main channel.
By 1871 and 72 the Chattahoochee was in sore need of improvement due to heavy sedimentation from half a century of intensive cotton production and deforestation. Navigation was becoming more and more difficult if not impossible in some areas.
The army Corps of Engineers set to work widening the channel in some areas and building wing dams (with the hopes of scouring deeper channels) in others. By 1881 the steamboat lines had had enough. The Corps improvements had actually made conditions worse. Despite their protests, the Corps projects continued. By 1891, silting in the channel was occurring faster than progress was being made.
Slowly government dollars dwindled and in 1895, steamboat companies bore the entire expense of keeping the river open. At this point the Chattahoochee was the south’s longest and most important river east of the Mississippi. But the country was in the midst of a depression.
After the 1900s steamers began to change. Many of the old companies closed their doors. After the civil war many boats stopped at more than 260 landings between Columbus and Appalachicola. Now they only stopped at 28 major communities. 16 years later the stops would number only 5.
The river’s natural character of drying up to a rivulet in the region north of Eufaula during periods of low rainfall was exacerbated by settlement of the lands along its banks. As farmers and developers loosened the red clay by forest clearing and plowing, wind and rain swept the dirt into the river bed.
Expanding rail lines and after WWI the birth of the mass produced automobile, both contributed to the slow death of river commerce.
The last steam line sold their final boat in 1921.
Industrial Growth in the Basin
In 1873, Columbus’s Eagle and Phenix (renamed after its rapid rise from the ashes of Wilsons Raiders at the close of the Civil War) Mill became the South’s largest textile plant and the city’s primary employer. Housing for the workers was built on the AL side of the river and later named Phenix City.
All electric power interests in Columbus merged around 1906 and after 1930 became a part of the Georgia Power Company. The company held a monopoly on power generation and owned riparian rights to 44% of the succession of waterfalls between West Point and Columbus. This 15 mile stretch was incredibly valuable for power production as it dropped almost 300 feet. In contrast, between Eufaula and Columbus the river only drops a foot per mile.
Throughout the early 20th century West Point had a bad tendency to flood. 1901, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. Then in 1919 the worst of all hit, ten and a half feet above flood stage.
The poet, F.W. Nash hinted that the years of land clearing practices were responsible in his poem entitled “The Rivers Vindication” which ended:
“So I’ve gone on the war path;
I’ve harried your lands with glee.
Restore with care my woodlands fair
And I’ll peacefully flow to the sea.”
Shortly after WWII James Woodruff headed to Washington campaigning for the most ambitious changes the Chattahoochee would experience. The River and Harbors Act of 1946 would affect the entire ACF basin.
Starting at Chattahoochee, Florida where the Chattahoochee and Flint converge was built the Jim Woodruf Dam, to include hydropower and a lock for river transport. Its reservoir became known as Lake Seminole. Fifty miles north at Columbus the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam deepened the river more than widened it, improving navigation depth for 26 miles upstream. The Walter F. George was placed near Fort Gaines and Eufaula. It has become the largest producer of energy on the river and a mecca for fisherman.
Buford dam/Lake Lanier was named for Sidney Lanier who wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee.”
When the Woodruff dam opened, Bainbridge, GA on the Flint River became Georgia’s first inland port.
The Chattahoochee’s Legacy of Pollution
Atlanta, West Point, Columbus, Phenix City, Eufaula, Fort Gaines, Dothan, and Columbia all ran their sewage directly into the river until the 1960s. Columbus began treating its waste in 1964 but only by holding waste in a pond letting solids fall out released their chemical wastes untreated into the river.
“The Chattahoochee’s pollution problem was distinct from most other American river, for rarely were cities the size of Atlanta placed near the head of a river system. The Chattahoochee had to swallow the filth of Atlanta and carry it inside its belly for hundreds of miles to the ocean.”(Willoughby)
The first Riverkeeper was started on the Chattahoochee in 1992 (Karen Plant).
West Point Lake, the main source of drinking water for LaGrange found dangerous levels of mercury as well as chlordane and PCBs.
The river’s source is a mountain spring in the Chattahoochee National Forest. From there it flows 540 miles to the Florida panhandle and Apalachicola Bay.
Measuring 436 miles, the Chattahoochee is Georgia’s longest river. Below the Chattahoochee / Flint juncture it also becomes Florida’s largest river, from thence on called the Appalachicola River.
The entire river basin covers 19,600 square miles, pumps an average of 16 billion gallons of freshwater a day into Appalachicola Bay and ranks as the eleventh largest river in the United States. 15 dams impede its flow.
The nearly three million people within the tristate watershed struggle over this finite resource. “No other major metropolitan area in the country depends on a smaller drainage basin.” -Joe Cook