Visitors from around the world are converging on Augusta this week for one of professional golf’s more prestigious events – the Masters Tournament.
But springtime a century ago was a signal to Augusta’s prominent residents to board trains out of the steamy city for rural getaways among the pines in Columbia County.
“The railroad made this town,” Columbia County historian Charles Lord said of Grovetown, just 15 miles from Augusta. “The main thing was the train. ... That’s what brought the people.”
Grovetown and Harlem were “picayune” train rides away and served as resort areas for Augustans hoping to escape humid summers along the Savannah River from the late 1800s to about 1930.
Grovetown Mayor George James said he always heard that influential Augusta families preferred life along the river, but in the summer they looked westward to avoid malaria and warm-weather pests associated with the hot, moist area.
“In the springtime and summertime, the mosquitoes would come and about take you off,” James said. “They built all in and around the Grovetown area.”
Weathly Augustans, including Augusta Herald owner Bowdry Phinizy, built summer homes in Grovetown, which was then just a small farming town. In 1891, Phinizy helped fund construction of a new train depot, which Lord said was known as one of the most elegant between Augusta and Atlanta.
Dennis Redmond, whose plantation home in Augusta later became the clubhouse at the Augusta National Golf Club, owned a summer home in Grovetown.
Augustans who didn’t have country homes, and Northerners visiting during the winter months, stayed at one of a few hotels in Harlem or at Grovetown’s renowned hotel, The Rosland, later called the Eagle Hotel. An advertisement for the hotel, displayed in the Grovetown Museum, listed it as “among the pines” and “free from dampness and malaria.”
“When people came out here, they came out mainly for the fresh air and the scenery,” Lord said. “(The Rosland) was really elegant.”
Locals and others followed the railroad to Harlem for many of the same reasons, but also for its entertainment.
The city boasted the Columbia Opera House, which presented vaudeville-type performances by singers, minstrel acts, jugglers, lecturers and magicians. The opera house burned in August 1917 in a fire that nearly destroyed the city’s downtown business district.
Entertainment moved to the Star Theatre. In 1949, the city opened its first modern cinema, The Columbia Theater.
City historian Jack Hatcher said he heard the stories of the city’s heyday from old-timers in the back of his family’s store.
“(Harlem) was a short distance and it was considered quite healthy, and they had pretty good entertainment,” Hatcher said.
The influx of visitors led to the city’s current name. Formerly called Sylvan, from a Latin word meaning “trees,” the city was renamed after New Yorkers noted its similarity to the New York borough of Harlem, Hatcher said.
The cities’ status as resort areas diminished in 1930 after the railroad stopped running local passenger routes.
The “elegance” of the hotel also waned. The Eagle Hotel enjoyed its last hoorah around 1942, when many involved in the construction of Fort Gordon stayed there, Lord said.
Not much remains of the two cities’ legacies as vacation destinations.
The Eagle Hotel burned in 1979. Harlem’s train depot was torn down in 1965, and Grovetown’s was leveled in the mid-1970s.
“The depot was taken down because our city leaders at that time, more or less, felt like they didn’t have the funds to take it over and make improvements to it and keep it up,” James said.
Hatcher and Lord preserve evidence of the structures and the era as much as possible. A light fixture from the Grovetown depot is displayed in the city’s museum, and Harlem leaders plan to build a replica of the former depot.