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Posts Tagged ‘The South’

Here, let me give you one of my cards. Now, if you should ever want to reach me, call me at this number. Don’t call me at that one. That’s the old one.”

— James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in the movie “Harvey,” 1950.

———

I cast my first ballot in 1961, the year I turned 18. Technically, my 18-year-old self could vote only in state and local elections; at the time, the minimum federal voting age was 21. As you know from your high school civics, the 26th Amendment, enacted in 1971, lowered the voting age nationwide to 18.

But it’s a fact that from 1961 to the present, I have faithfully cast a ballot whenever the law has allowed me to cast it, without missing a single election, ever. An unbroken string of 50-plus years. I’m right proud of that.

Also notable in this regard is that I have never once — never once — voted for a Republican.

Just to be clear, I’ve voted in a boatload of elections over the years — primaries, runoffs, special elections, general elections, local, state, national — and I’ve never cast a ballot for anyone running as a Republican.

Judging from the way the GOP continues to spiral downward into lunacy, delusion, and paranoia, I never will. But let’s not talk about the Republicans and their beliefs, which range from the laughable to the selfish to the mean. It befouls my mood.

This record of never having voted for a Republican wasn’t planned. It occurred naturally, owing to the fact that I’ve been a liberal Democrat as long as I can remember. That’s just how I roll. When I realized I had a no-GOP thing going, I found it quite satisfying and resolved to keep the record intact.

A couple of decades ago, the political landscape was different from today. In the old days, the Republican Party was, as always, fixated on greasing the skids for business interests and rich people. It was right-leaning, but far less wild-eyed and extreme than today’s GOP.

Democrats back then were a mix of non-whites, white liberals like me, and, awkwardly, Southern white conservatives. The latter belonged to the Democratic Party by long tradition.

Under those circumstances, I had no trouble choosing candidates. I simply ignored the Republicans, and I ruled out any Democrat who admired George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, or anyone of that ilk. Voting was a piece of cake.

But then, in the late 1960s, the Republican Party enacted its despicable “Southern strategy.” This was when the GOP brazenly tacked to the right in order to curry favor among white Southerners who resented societal changes, such as the civil rights movement, and despised the hippies.

The Southern strategy was cynical and dirty, and it worked brilliantly. The GOP siphoned off virtually every white conservative voter in the South. Within a decade, the Democratic Party was devoid of Southern white conservatives.

By and large, nothing really changed in Southern politics, government, or governance. The same people who ran things as Democrats now ran things as Republicans. Their worldview and behavior changed very little.

And, as far as my voting habits and practices were concerned, none of this mattered much. For a while.

The transition of the South didn’t take long. The GOP steadily took over virtually all local and state politics, like mold on cheese. And once that was done, in order to keep Democrats out and Republicans in, the gerrymandering commenced.

Gerrymandered

Georgia’s gerrymandered congressional districts.

Examples are everywhere, but here are two from my own back yard.

— Atlanta, a stronghold of the Democratic Party, was gerrymandered into four separate congressional districts. Atlanta’s voting strength was diluted, and three of the four districts immediately elected Republican congressmen.

— Athens has been a liberal bastion for years, but gerrymandering split Athens between the 9th and 10th Congressional Districts. Both were large enough to neuter the city’s political influence, and today, those districts, too, are represented by Republicans.

For me, who never misses an election and doesn’t vote for Republicans, this presented a problem: what to do when everyone on the ballot is a Republican?

I don’t remember exactly when I faced this dilemma for the first time. Probably sometime in the 1980s. Probably in a local election in which all the candidates on the ballot were Republicans.

Voting for one of them was unacceptable. So was skipping the election. So was turning in an empty ballot. The obvious recourse: a write-in candidate.

The first few times, making a good-faith effort, I wrote in the names of local people I could imagine doing the job. But, really, what difference did the name make? It was a single write-in vote, destined to mean nothing.

So I came up with a new system. Each time I encountered an all-Republican ballot, I wrote in the name Elwood P. Dowd. Over the years, I’ve voted for Elwood countless times.

Just last week, I early-voted in the Jefferson mayoral election. The race is between the incumbent and a challenger, both cookie-cutter, small-town Georgia Republicans. No Democrat was on the ballot. Therefore, I voted for Elwood P. Dowd.

By so doing, I was able to extend my unbroken voting streak of 50-plus years and also preserve my record of never having voted for a Republican.

That’s assuming Elwood P. Dowd was a Democrat, you understand.

Georgia voter

Dowd

 

 

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Another Claim to Fame

A few years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about Jefferson, Georgia, where I’ve lived for the last dozen years. They were stories about the history of the city, the county, and a few local people of varying degrees of celebrity.

Well, since I wrote all that, Jefferson has scored another claim to fame. Added another superlative to its history. Stuck another feather in its cap.

We are now the home of the world’s largest mattress.

Laugh if you must, but one Jefferson business took the matter seriously enough to actually construct the thing.

Here’s the story.

The world’s largest mattress is 38 feet wide and 80 feet long, which is about 3,000 square feet. That’s the size of 72 king-size mattresses. Or 96 queen-size, or 110 regular-size, or 156 twin-size.

The WLM was designed and built by a mattress company from Tennessee. It weighs 4,560 pounds. It consists of a frame, a boatload of foam padding, a giant mattress pad, and an equally huge cloth cover. The structure is supported by 46 roof trusses.

The WLM is located in the middle of the two-acre sales floor of Cotton Mill Interiors, a furniture and accessories store that occupies most of a former cotton mill near the center of town.

That enterprise, Jefferson Mills, is remembered fondly by the locals.

The mill opened in 1899 and for decades was the town’s largest employer and taxpayer. It was noted for its production of high-quality corduroy. The mill closed in 1995, and the structure was renovated for retail use.

The world’s largest mattress, you’ll be pleased to know, is open to the bouncing public. The owners invite kids and parents to take off their shoes, climb aboard, and go for a romp. A safety railing protects against falls.

As often happens, the PR people laid it on a little thick at the ribbon-cutting: “The reason for building the mattress is to promote the importance of sleep to an overall healthy lifestyle.” Uh, okay.

Still, as promotional schemes go, the WLM is benign and inoffensive. And it’s a lot classier than an inflatable gorilla in front of the building. Or the Chamber of Commerce throwing turkeys off the roof at Thanksgiving.

So far, I have not availed myself of a round of bouncing. But, hey — never say never.

WLM

 

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Help is On the Way

A few days ago, I stopped at the local Kroger for a few things, among them a bottle of Pinot Noir.

At the self-checkout, in order to get the pesky proof-of-age step out of the way (as if a graybeard like me isn’t over 21), I scanned the bottle of wine first.

I.D. check required!” barked the scanner in a female voice. “Help is on the way!”

Moments later, a young clerk in Kroger blue appeared, probably a high school senior or college freshman. I recognized him from previous visits. A pleasant kid.

I held out my driver’s license. He leaned forward, squinted, read my date of birth, and turned to inform the computer.

That’s a new recording,” I said. “The ‘help-is-on-the-way’ part. I don’t know why it strikes me as funny, but it does.”

Oh, thanks for reminding me,” he said. “I forgot to put on my name tag when I clocked in.”

He reached into a pants pocket and began fishing around.

With an aha, he located the tag, took it out, clipped it to his shirt, and turned so I could see it.

I made this after I heard the recording, like, a million times,” he said.

The badge:

Help

 

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I’m trying to puzzle out the story of my paternal great-great-grandfather based on a smattering of tantalizing facts. He seems to have led an eventful life in interesting times, and I’d like to know more about him.

The ancestor of whom I speak is John Hubbard Sherrod, M.D. He was born in 1830 in Emanuel County, Georgia, midway between Macon and Savannah.

His connection to the present-day Smiths: Dr. Sherrod’s daughter Martha married a Smith from the next county. Their son was my Savannah grandfather.

This is what I’ve learned about Dr. Sherrod so far…

Family notes say he probably was born in Norristown, Georgia, the son of Mrs. Elizabeth Sherrod, who was born in 1792, maiden name unknown. Nothing so far about his father or any siblings.

In 1851, at age 21, Dr. Sherrod married Elizabeth Moxley of nearby Jefferson County. By the time the Civil War started, John and Elizabeth had three daughters, Martha, Elizabeth, and Susan, born in 1854, 1857, and 1861, respectively.

When and where Sherrod earned a medical degree, I don’t know. Nor do I have information about earlier Sherrods and Moxleys. Considering his profession, I assume the families were fairly prosperous, but were they merchants? Farmers? Owners of vast cotton plantations? All unknown.

When the Civil War began, Sherrod served as a first lieutenant and Adjutant (second in command) of Company C, 38th Georgia Infantry, CSA. According to military records, the unit completed its training in April 1862, at which time Lt. Sherrod tendered his resignation. Whether he joined another unit or simply went home, I haven’t discovered yet.

I do know that he survived the war, and in 1867, he was appointed judge of Emanuel County civil court. He and Elizabeth also had two more children, John and Margaret, born in 1869 and 1871.

During the Reconstruction years, the history of the Sherrod family becomes fuzzier. Elizabeth died of unknown causes, and Dr. Sherrod remarried.

His second wife was Sudie Dunn, also from Emanuel County. The Dunns seem to have been as numerous thereabouts as Sherrods and Smiths.

John and Sudie Sherrod had at least three children: Charlie, Joe, and Jessie. Charlie was born in 1886, when Dr. Sherrod was 56.

Dr. Sherrod continued to practice medicine in Emanuel County, and/or made a living in some other way, for two more decades. Finding out how long he served as a judge is on my to-do list.

John Sherrod died in 1903 at age 73. After some Googling, I located his grave at a small Methodist church cemetery a few miles south of the Emanuel County line in Treutlen County. Last month, I drove down to pay my respects.

Neither wife, I discovered, is buried with him. I haven’t located the graves of either Elizabeth or Sudie, nor have I uncovered more information about them.

However, buried next to Dr. Sherrod are his daughter Elizabeth (by his first wife), his son Charlie (by his second wife), and various other Sherrods and Dunns whose connections are unknown. The head of the family surrounded by his flock, as it were.

Dr. Sherrod’s gravestone is six feet tall and fairly elaborate and imposing, as you might expect for a small-town prominent citizen. A separate granite marker with details about his CSA military service sits in front of the headstone.

I was surprised to find a small Confederate flag, a new one, flying next to his grave. It could have been placed by local Confederate history buffs, or it could have been placed by his descendants in the area. Odds are, quite a few of Dr. Sherrod’s relatives, and my own, live in those parts.

The best parts of Dr. Sherrod’s story, I suspect, are still out there — the War, his life afterward, his medical practice, his family. Maybe I’ll get lucky and ferret out more pieces of the puzzle.

Plenty of mysteries, clues, and threads of evidence are there, waiting to consume my spare time.

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The grave of John Hubbard Sherrod (left) is surrounded by those of assorted Sherrods and other relatives at Midway UMC Cemetery in northern Treutlen County.

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Dr. Sherrod’s monument prominently features the Masonic letter G with square and compass. The marble CSA marker at the base was placed sometime after his burial. The crisp, new Confederate flag was unexpected.

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Martha Roseanna Sherrod Smith (1854-1939), my great-grandmother, was the oldest child of John Hubbard Sherrod. In 1875, she married John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), also a Confederate veteran. Their son was my paternal grandfather, Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950). To the family, Martha was “Granny Smith.”

 

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Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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$7.10

Maybe a math major could help me understand this transaction.

Back in January, because my RV had been sitting idle for too long, I decided to take a road trip. Nothing elaborate, just a loop into the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains for a few days. It turned out to be a leisurely, interesting, and pleasant trip.

Usually, I stay at state park campgrounds, which are reliably clean, quiet, and inexpensive. But sometimes you have no choice. The first night, due to the timing, I was obliged to stay at a private RV park in North Carolina. A place called Whispering Pines or something like that.

Whispering Pines was a bad decision. After checking in, I discovered that the bathhouse had been “winterized” and closed for the season. In other words, the pipes had been drained to prevent freezing, and the place was padlocked. It would reopen in the spring.

Sorry, Mr. Camper. Use the shower in your RV.

Which would be fine, except that my RV, like virtually every other RV this side of Tampa, also has been winterized for the season. My shower is closed until spring, too.

I was not a happy camper.

Fortunately, by the second night, I was back in Northeast Georgia, and with great relief, I checked into the campground at Tallulah Gorge State Park. The facilities there, thank you very much, remain operational all year long.

At this point, the aforementioned transaction comes in.

The campground host was a patient, almost serene woman trying to deal with an infant, a toddler, and me at the same time. She said campsites with full hookups were $32 per night, with discounts to senior citizens and veterans.

“Are you a senior or a veteran?”

“Both.”

“Okay, that will be $24 for the night. Also, we’re having a special right now: you can stay a second night for half price. That’s $24 for tonight and $12 for tomorrow night.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“That’s basically a free night,” I said. “How can I turn that down?”

The only problem was minor. The office was closed, and the nice lady had no cash with her.

I gave her $25, and we agreed I could settle up when the office opened the next morning.

Later that evening, when I retired to the RV and watched the news, I learned that heavy rain was moving toward us from the north. It would arrive by mid-morning and hang around for the next 48 hours.

Bummer. Up to that point, the weather had been sunny and mild. In an instant, the idea of being on the road lost its appeal. It was time to head home. After a luxurious morning shower in the bathhouse, of course.

The next day, up early and ready to depart, I saw no reason to wait for the park office to open. I owed $24 for one night and had paid $25. Close enough.

A few hours later, just as the storm caught up with me, I was home.

Three weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived from Tallulah Gorge State Park. Inside was this:

refund

In case you can’t tell, enclosed was $7.10.

First and foremost, refunding the money — taking the trouble to refund it — was a generous, high-minded thing to do. It speaks well of the person responsible and of the park itself.

But, as I understood the situation, I overpaid THEM. Where the idea of $7.10 in my favor came from, I haven’t a clue.

I even sat down with pencil and paper, trying to use dead reckoning to figure it out. This is as far as I got:

– $32
– $24
– $12

– $25

– $7.10

Baffling.

Math was never my thing.

 

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The Augusta Canal

This is my second post about Augusta, Georgia, which I visited in June on a lark. No need to read my earlier post first, but feel free.

————

When I think about how people lived in earlier times, I tend to judge them as primitive and unsophisticated. Not stupid, mind you, but simple and unrefined. Clueless compared to us cutting-edge modern folks.

And up to a point, they were. For example, to prevent disease, you have to understand the concept of pathogens. Good luck with that if you lived before people knew what pathogens are.

But sometimes, I run across evidence that people from days of yore were quite competent and shouldn’t be sold short. A case in point: the impressive feat, way back in the 1840s, of building the Augusta Canal.

A bit of background. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe founded Savannah, the first settlement in the new colony of Georgia. In 1736, Oglethorpe sent a contingent of troops up the Savannah River to build an outpost at the limit of upstream navigation.

The purpose was to establish a settlement where goods could be brought from towns to the north and west and shipped downriver to Savannah for export.

The limit of upstream navigation turned out to be 200 miles north of Savannah at the fall line, where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. For centuries, native people used the ledges and shoals at the fall line to cross the Savannah River.

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(Later, the cities of  Macon, Columbus, and Milledgeville also were established at the fall line. Below them, the rivers are deep and smooth to the Atlantic or the Gulf. Above them is rocky, shallow water and a steady climb to the Appalachians.)

Oglethorpe’s expedition built an outpost on the west bank of the Savannah River about seven miles south of the fall line. The settlement was named in honor of Princess Augusta, the wife of the Prince of Wales.

And Oglethorpe’s plan worked splendidly. For the next hundred years, Augusta thrived as a trading and shipping center. Wagons rolled into town from across the region carrying tobacco, cotton, and other goods. The warehouses brimmed with product. Barges and steamboats transported a steady stream of cargo downriver to Savannah, where it was shipped to other markets.

But by the early 1800s, Augusta’s prosperity was waning. Various economic factors were taking their toll — the country’s westward expansion, the growth of the railroads, competition from other river towns.

Then in the 1840s, a man with a vision came forward. Henry H. Cumming, son of the city’s first mayor, proposed a plan to turn Augusta into a manufacturing center by building a canal from the fall line to Augusta.

 

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Henry H. Cumming

Because the canal would drop 52 feet in elevation by the time it reached Augusta, it could provide hydropower to operate mills and factories. Plus, it would be a transportation corridor and a source of drinking water.

Cumming hired a prestigious engineer to survey the route and draw up the plans, and the city fathers gave it their blessing. Construction on the Augusta Canal began in the spring of 1845.

The workers — hundreds of slaves, freedmen, and white laborers — dug the entire canal by hand.

This, mind you, was an era when the only tools available were pickaxes, shovels, and horse-drawn carts. There was no electric power, no heavy equipment. Steam power was in development, but it was not practical for a field project.

The canal was designed and built in three sections. Where each section ended, some of the water was allowed to flow downhill and back into the Savannah River. At those drops, the new factories would be built.

Despite constant engineering complications and a several legal battles over the route, the canal was completed and opened in July 1850.

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Painting of the headgates of the Augusta Canal at the fall line, 1850s.

But the project was only a limited success. The canal performed as expected, but it wasn’t large enough to power all the proposed factories and mills. The engineers had miscalculated.

Thus, after the understandable delay of the Civil War, a project to enlarge the canal got underway in 1872.

Again, battalions of workers were assembled. Some were local laborers, some were convicts from area prisons. Italian stonemasons and Chinese railroad workers were brought in. Steam-powered equipment was used in addition to picks and shovels.

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Expanding the Augusta Canal. Painting by Bernard Willingham, 1870s.

By 1875, the new and improved Augusta Canal was in operation. This time, the channel was 13 feet deep and 150 feet across.

Between the canal and the Savannah River, a towpath was built atop the levy so horses and oxen could pull the barges. The towpath ran from the canal headgates to downtown Augusta.

As envisioned, new factories soon arose along the canal banks. “Mill towns” materialized to house the factory workers and their families. The textile industry and other enterprises flourished in Augusta well into the 20th Century.

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Sibley Cotton Mill on the Augusta Canal, 1903.

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A flat-bottomed “Petersburg” boat on the canal in the 1890s.

As the decades passed, the canal generated electricity not only for the factories, but also for streetcars, streetlights, homes, and businesses.

But by the 1960s, inevitably, Augusta’s prosperity began to wane again. The canal was becoming antiquated. Truck transportation took business away. Electricity was cheaper from the new power plants on the Savannah River.

Meanwhile, the city began neglecting the canal and even considered draining parts of it. When Augusta demolished several abandoned factories during urban renewal projects, parts of the in-town portion of the canal were allowed to dry up.

In 1971, another Cumming stepped forward and woke up the city fathers in grand style. It was Joseph Cumming, great-grandson of Henry, who managed to get the Augusta Canal added to the National Register of Historic Places.

This action forced the city administration to change its viewpoint about the canal. “Save the Augusta Canal” bumper stickers became popular. Local citizens organized to stop the construction of a golf course near the canal headgates.

By the 1990s, Augusta also realized that the canal had superb recreational possibilities. Soon, a canal authority was chartered. The canal was cleaned up, and the flow of water was restored throughout its length.

In 1996, the canal was designated a National Heritage Area. One of the old factories was converted into a canal museum and visitor center.

Today, You can rent a canoe or kayak at the headgates, float as far downstream as you like, and take a shuttle back.

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You can walk, run, or cycle for miles on the towpath or other trails in the vicinity.

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The city now offers cruises along the canal aboard replicas of the old Petersburg flatboats. Appropriately, one of those flatboats is the Henry H. Cumming.

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Sibley Mill (left) and J. P. King Mill today. Both are vacant, but are owned and protected by the Canal Authority.

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One leg of the canal passes through this in-town courtyard as the water flows back to the Savannah River.

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A view of the canal from the towpath.

The Augusta Canal is now 166 years old — and doing pretty well for its age.

 

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