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The Chattahoochee: A River of History

August 13, 2006 - February 11, 2007


For centuries, the Chattahoochee River has served residents of this area as a transportation route, an engine for commerce and recreational resource. A vital part of Columbus's past, present and future, it binds the Chattahoochee Valley together as a region. Through photographs, postcards and paintings, this exhibition will take a look at how the river has helped shape the development of the Chattahoochee Valley.


(above: Francis de la Porte, Chutes de la Chattahoutchie (or Falls of the Chattahoochee), ca. 1838, Museum purchase 83.74



The Chattahoochee River is the central point through which to begin an understanding of this area's heritage. For hundreds of years, it has served residents of the Chattahoochee Valley as a natural and recreational resource, transportation route, and engine for commerce. It has also served as a reference point and boundary, inspiration for creativity, and even as a sewer for the cities that grew up on its banks. A vital part of our community's past, present, and future, it binds the Chattahoochee Valley together as a distinctive region. The images in this exhibit illustrate just some of the ways the river has played an integral role in the development of this area.

The name Chattahoochee is derived from the Creek words chatto, meaning stone and hoche, translated as flowered or marked. It is believed to have been named for an Indian town located near present day Heard County, Georgia.

From its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia, the Chattahoochee flows southwestward as a small, swift running stream through Atlanta before turning south near the Alabama border. After coursing through a series of rapids between West Point and Columbus, the river gradually becomes wider and flows considerably slower as it winds its way southward. The Chattahoochee joins the Flint River near the Florida state line, and for the rest of its course is known as the Apalachicola River. It empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay, over 400 miles from its source.

The headwaters of the river are near Chattahoochee Gap in the mountains of north Georgia. The river begins its journey as a small stream five miles from Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the state of Georgia. The river's journey begins at an elevation of over 3500 feet above sea level, and ends in the Gulf of Mexico.


Food and Water Resource

Of all the uses of the river, perhaps the earliest and most basic is as a source of food and water. The Chattahoochee Valley's first inhabitants relied extensively on the river and its tributary system for the necessities of life, especially the abundance of plant and animal life it nurtured. The arable soil in the river valley, replenished through annual flooding, helped make stable agriculture possible.

Though today the river is no longer as crucial a source of food, its value as a source of water has never been more prominent. Currently nearly five million people rely on the river for water, and the amount municipalities and states can draw from it is a hotly contested issue all along the areas the river flows through.

Chattahoochee Valley tribes relied on the plants and animals that thrived near the river for food, and utilized the rich soil near it for agriculture. The abundance of archaeological sites along the Chattahoochee is perhaps the most obvious proof of the dependence of the area's natives on the river.

Columbus's first water treatment facility was constructed in 1915 on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee. The Columbus Water Works still relies on the river today to operate its 42 million gallon treatment facility and supply water for nearly 200,000 people.


Transportation Route

It has only been in the relatively recent past that the river has ceased to be the main transportation artery in the region. For centuries the Chattahoochee Valley's native populations relied extensively on river travel in their communications and trade, and to a great degree Columbus owes its existence to the fact that it is located at the head of navigation of the river.

River-borne cotton trade heavily influenced the development of an agricultural economy and the rise of slavery in the antebellum period, and throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century the river remained one of the region's chief outlets to world markets. The advent of railroads and automobiles, along with the costs associated with maintaining a channel of sufficient depth for carrying on trade, and later, environmental concerns, have virtually ended the use of the river for large-scale trade and transportation.

River-borne trade between the cities of Columbus and Apalachicola was first established in the 1820s. By the 1850s the port of Apalachicola, fueled by Chattahoochee Valley cotton production, had become the Gulf Coast's third largest cotton port.

James W. Woodruff, Sr. was the leading champion of navigation improvements on the lower Chattahoochee from the 1930s to the 1950s. A co-founder of the Tri-Rivers Association, he lobbied extensively for the construction of locks and dams on the river that would make it navigable as far north as Atlanta. Jim Woodruff Dam near Bainbridge is named in his honor.


Reference Point, Barrier, and Obstacle

In addition to being utilized as a resource, the Chattahoochee River has served some less conventional but nonetheless influential roles in shaping the development of this region. A natural reference point as a result of being the region's dominant geographic feature, for centuries tribal alliances and territorial boundaries were arranged in reference to the stream. During the Gulf South's colonial period, the river served as the boundary between the British, and later Spanish, colonies of East and West Florida. The Chattahoochee was a significant barrier to east-west travel and trade in the area before the construction of bridges, and prior to the construction of the series of dams along its course frequent flooding posed a serious threat to residential and industrial development along the riverfront.

When Alabama was admitted into the union in 1819, much of the lower portion of the river was specified as the boundary between that state and Georgia.

Named after a local family, Glass's Bridge near West Point, Georgia, was the last major wooden bridge across the Chattahoochee River. The bridge was built in the 1890s by sons of freed slave and legendary area bridge builder Horace King, and continued to be used until 1956.


Power Source

More than any other single factor, the Chattahoochee River has been the catalyst for the economic development of Columbus and the surrounding area. The city's river-powered industrial output was such that by the time of the Civil War it ranked as one of the south's leading industrial centers and was second-largest southern textile production center. Regional water-powered industry played a key role in supporting the Confederate war effort, and though many facilities were destroyed during the conflict, by the late 1800s Columbus was once again one of the leading centers in national textile production. In the postwar years the West Point/Lanett area north of Columbus capitalized on the river's power as well, and by the 1930's that area's concentration of mills ranked it as the nation's sixth-largest textile-manufacturing complex.

The first mill to utilize its power was constructed in the same year the city was founded, and in less than three decades Columbus was home to a variety of mills producing items including ground wheat and corn, sawed lumber and textiles.

Much of the river-powered industrial development in Columbus occurred along the river in a series of "water lots." These lots, positioned to take advantage of the waterpower diverted their way by a dam, was envisioned by 1840s city officials as an enticement for industrial entrepreneurs. For well over 100 years, Columbus textile industries continued to operate along this stretch.

The Confederate ironclad gunboat CSS Jackson (also known as the CSS Muscogee) was built in Columbus by the Confederate Naval Ironworks during the Civil War. Though burned to the waterline by Union troops, the remnants of the massive warship were salvaged in the 1950s and are today on display in the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum.

The river's importance as a power source goes beyond mills and factories. Hydroelectric power, first used in Columbus in 1882, quickly became profitable as mill powerhouses, then dams, began to generate electricity. By the 1920s dams on the Chattahoochee in the Columbus area were selling electricity to thousands of citizens far from the river's banks, and the area came to be as recognized for its role in power generation as its other long-standing manufacturing capabilities. Columbus was so well-known for its hydroelectricity industry that it was known as the "electric city" in the early 1900s. One turbine at the Eagle and Phenix Mills powerhouse, installed in 1898, still produces electricity today.


Recreational Resource

Swimming, fishing, sight-seeing trips, and strolls on the riverbank are just a few of the many recreational activities Chattahoochee Valley residents have engaged in on the river over the centuries. The creation of lakes along the river in the 20th century only enhanced the river's well-established recreational opportunities, and today recreation is of one of the major economic benefits the region derives from the Chattahoochee.

The scenic beauty of the river has been showcased in much of the recent riverfront development in Columbus and Phenix City. Portions of both cities' downtowns are currently undergoing a major re-orientation towards the Chattahoochee.

Recreational opportunities along the river continue to be developed today. The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is spearheading an effort to remove the remaining mill dams on the river in downtown Columbus to allow it to flow naturally through the area. Supporters believe the plan would have a number of environmental, cultural, and economic benefits. The group believes it could be especially beneficial to tourism because it would create a series of rapids suitable for rafting and kayaking.

The West Georgia Underwater Archaeological Society is one of several groups interested in studying the river to better understand this area's close connection with the stream. They have investigated sites such as steamboat wrecks and bridge foundations.


Environmental Learning Resource

Of the river's many roles in the history of this area, perhaps none is as controversial or as damaging as its use as a sewer by the populations it serves. As late as the 1960s, most of the larger cities along the river in Georgia and Alabama still ran their sewage directly into the river, and dozens of industries dumped tons of hazardous chemicals into the waterway. Despite federal regulation aimed at halting the dumping of waste into the river, in the 1990s it was named one of the nation's worst polluted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Though great strides in cleaning the river have been made over the past decade, pollution remains a problem.

To some degree, the Chattahoochee's pollution problems can be explained by the unique distribution of population along its banks. Few river systems have a metropolis the size of Atlanta located near their headwaters. For decades, the source of the most controversy regarding the polluting of the river has been the amount of toxins dumped into it by the city of Atlanta which contaminate the river far downstream.

The consequences of the pollution problem become even more apparent when one takes into account the fact that the millions of plants and animals that depend on the river dwarf the number of people it impacts. With modern civilization having already eliminated many species of wildlife that once thrived along the river, it is important that we take a careful look at how our activities are impacting the environment to better understand how we can balance its needs and those of our community.



Because of the river's natural beauty and power, as well as its central role in the heritage and development of this area, the Chattahoochee has long exerted a powerful emotional hold on those who live along its banks. It has inspired the imaginations of professional and amateur artists, photographers, authors, musicians, and film and television producers. Displayed here is just a sampling of the creative work which features or has been heavily influenced by the river.

The Confederate gunboat CSS Muscogee (also known as the CSS Jackson) was built in Columbus during the Civil War, and burned to the waterline by Union forces during a raid on the city in April of 1865.

Jessie Dubose Rhoads, a Coffee County, Alabama native, created over 150 paintings depicting life in the lower Chattahoochee Valley region in the early 1900s. This painting, representative of a typical scene from life on the Chattahoochee at the turn of the 20th century, features several elements that are closely associated with the river's history at the time: a steamboat, covered bridge, cotton and stevedores.

Song of the Chattahoochee
By Sidney Lanier
Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.
All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried Abide, abide,
The wilful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay,
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.
High o'er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.
And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
-Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet, and amethyst-
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.
But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call-
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o'er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.

Exhibition Related Programming

Panel Discussion
Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 p.m.
Enjoy refreshments and discover the importance of the Chattahoochee as a cultural and recreational resource. At 6:00 p.m., Joe Cook, author of River Song: A Journey Down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers, Doug Purcell, Executive Director of the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, and Carole Rutland, Executive Director of Riverway South, will speak on the Chattahoochee River Valley.
Dine & Discover
Thursday, September 14 at 12:00 - 1:00 p.m.
At noon, have lunch at the Museum; you can either bring your own or order a boxed lunch. Members receive a discount on the lunch. At 12:30, Assistant Curator Mike Bunn will lead a gallery walk of the exhibition. To reserve a lunch, please call the Education Department by September 12.



(above: Eagle and Phenix Mills. Gift of Kenneth F. Murrah 2002.59)


(above: The Chattahoochee rapids at Columbus. Gift of Kenneth F. Murrah 2002.59.5)

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