By the time of the American Civil War, Augusta had become one of the South’s few manufacturing centers. The Canal was a factor in Confederate Col. George W. Rains selecting Augusta as the location for the Confederate States Powder Works. The only buildings ever constructed by the government of the Confederate States of America, the 28 Powder Works structures reached along the Canal for two miles. Other war industries established themselves on or near the Canal, making Augusta a critical supplier of ammunition and war materiel.
Unlike some other Southern cities devastated by the Civil War and General Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina, Augusta ended the war in “better condition than any other cities in this section of the South,” reported the Augusta Chronicle in December 1865. The population had doubled and hard currency was available to finance recovery. The Canal’s Chief Engineer William Phillips suggested enlarging the Canal to mitigate recurring flooding, a feat accomplished by 1875.
Boom years followed as massive factories including the Enterprise, King and Sibley textile mills, the Lombard Ironworks and many others opened or expanded. Farm families migrated to the city for factory jobs as “operatives.” Largely employing women and children, some as young as seven or eight, the factories led to the rise of several “mill villages” in their precincts. Workers who took part in labor strikes and stoppages in the late 19th Century sometimes found themselves put out of their modest, company-owned dwellings.
By the 1890s working conditions in the mills – 11½ hour days, work speed-ups and pay reductions – and living conditions in the mill villages created a climate ripe for labor unrest. National labor organizations sent organizers who initiated a number of unsuccessful strikes. According to historian John S. Ezell, “Textile unionism took its last big chance in Augusta in 1902 and lost.”
Canal Headgates 1875
Spinner girl at an Augusta Mill
In the 1890s the city replaced its old water pumping station with the impressive structure at mid-canal that is still in use today. As the electric age began to dawn, the city turned to the Canal’s falling water power to drive the first electrical generation equipment. By 1892 the city boasted both electric streetcars and street lighting – the first Southern city to have these amenities.
Gradually Augusta’s factories converted from canal-driven hydro-mechanical power to electrical power. The city devised a number of schemes to build a hydro-electric plant on the Canal. None were carried through to completion.
Turbines in the 1898 Waterworks Building
Visit the National Park Service "Discover Our Shared Heritage" Augusta Website