Savannah then and now: Harbor deepening 100 years ago created demand for deeper waters today

By David Pendered

Note: This is the second of two stories that look at improvements to the Port of Savannah. Previously: Savannah expects more cargo

Long before “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” put a new spin on its tagline as “Hostess City of the South,” Savannah was known to ignore the basic needs of its lifeblood – cargo ships.

Savannah, schooner loading lumber

Longshoremen prepare a schooner docked in Savannah before a cargo of lumber is loaded. Circa 1900-1906. Credit: zeiglerhouseinn.com

At least that’s how William Harden described the state of Savannah’s port in his 1913 book, “History of Savannah and South Georgia.” Georgia’s modern-day leaders seem determined not to let these words of Harden’s be written of their watch:

  • “For a city as dependent as is Savannah upon her harbor, it had been allowed to fall into a shameful state of disrepair and one of the most necessary deeds of the [city] administration was the repair of all the slips and public docks.”

Compare that outlook to that expressed by Griff Lynch, the incoming executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. As Lynch described steady gains in cargo volumes handled by the Savannah port, he touched on three things a port must provide to attract business:

  • “No. 1, having the right size berth and the deepest water to accommodate vessels. No. 2, Georgia has invested $100 million over the past 10 years. Lastly, we in the state of Georgia are doing a phenomenal job under Gov. Deal of improving roadways and infrastructure to handle that cargo.”
Dock workers in Savannah use radios to manage that handling of hundreds of thousands of containers every month. File/Credit: Georgia Ports Authority

Dock workers in Savannah use radios to manage that handling of hundreds of thousands of containers every month. File/Credit: Georgia Ports Authority

The latest advancements at the port improve cargo movement and highway access.

The GPA board has approved the installation of four additional ship-to-shore cranes this year. Savannah will have 30 such cranes when the job’s done. Last month, the Jimmy DeLoach Connector was opened, providing a route that’s to cut tailpipe emissions and decrease truck trip times by a total of 900 hours a day, according to GPA.

A decent harbor isn’t all that Savannah struggled to provide at the turn of the 20th century. Nor are the conveniences that were expected of a first world city at that time all that different from those Savannah strives to provide in this era.

Consider the water supply.

Harden wrote in glowing terms of Thomas Purse, who sank the first artesian well in Savannah and just the second in the state:

  • “The domestic water supply of Savannah was drawn from a muddy river and unsanitary surface wells. Capt. Purse put down the first artesian well in Savannah and the second in the state, demonstrating the fact that unfailing crystal waters flow in subterranean channels to the sea ….”
Savannah, DeSoto Hotel

A century ago, the DeSoto Hotel had its own water well that provided guests with sparking water from the Floridan aquifer. Credit: flickr.com

A century later, the water supply proved to be less than unfailing. Fears of salt water intrusion into the Floridan aquifer prompted state officials in 2006 to cut Savannah’s reliance on well water. The city has issued $9.9 million in bonds to expand the treatment of surface water drawn from Abercorn Creek, a tributary of the Savannah River, according to a bond indenture filed on emma.msrb.org.

Since those early days that Harden descried, the two eras – past and present – show great similarity when it comes to providing a deep water port to attract ocean-going freight ships.

Harden portrays two harbor deepening projects in the same warm light that advocates today use in describing the current harbor deepening project.

The first deepening project appears to have begun in the 1890s. Harden, writing in 1913, described improvements over the previous 25 years as being led by Maj. William Williamson:

  • “Savannah has in the last twenty-five years grown from a shallow-water port, with a depth of twelve feet, to a deep-sea port, which can accommodate vessels of twenty-seven foot draught.”
Savannah, ships, tugs

Sailing ships that transport cargo share the Savannah River with tugboats that help guide ships to and from wharves. Credit: transpressnz.blogspot.com

Williamson joined civic leaders and then Gov. Hoke Smith on a trade mission to Europe that landed a steamship line and a group of new citizens:

  • “[T]heir efforts were successful in procuring the establishment of direct steamship communication with the Port of Savannah, so that the state received in 1907 the first cargo of selected immigrants arriving in Georgia since colonial days.”

Soon after, the same Capt. Purse who sank a well to reach the Floridan aquifer helped a second effort to deepen the Savannah Harbor:

  • “[H]e marshaled a corps of auxiliaries that made the way easy for the generous appropriations which resulted in the deepening of the channel of the Savannah river so that vessels drawing 32 feet can now enter and depart from the harbor, the result being that Savannah has stupendous shipping interests, ranking her as the first seaport of the south Atlantic coast.”
Savannah, streetscapes, early 1900s

Savannah’s Bull Street continues its tradition as a retail destination and, at the turn of the 20th century, had sidewalks on both sides of the street. Credit: pinterest.com

Subsequent deepening projects took the controlling depth to 42 feet. The current deepening project is to take the depth to 47 feet.

Lynch, the incoming GPA executive director, mentioned Harden’s book during a conversation Monday. He noted the similarities of efforts to deepen the Savannah River in order to be competitive in the realm of transoceanic shipping:

  • “Go back over 100 years ago, and there was a book written by William Harden, a librarian in Savannah. He wrote that the river was being deepened to handle larger vessels that will now transit from the new Panama Canal, that was to open in 1914. He talks about ocean freight rates being decreased by 20 to 30 percent because of larger ships.
  • “You know, that’s what’s happening today. The same thing. People are talking about 20 to percent decreases. … Our forefathers had the wisdom to deepen the Savannah River. And here we are, doing the same thing today.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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