We do not ask for an appropriation to pump water into a creek, but for the improvement of one of the largest and most important rivers of the United States.
- The Augusta Chronicle, Dec. 20, 1887
Last week when I read Robert Paveys article about Georgia and South Carolinas agreement on preserving the resources of the Savannah River, something sounded familiar. After checking my county history notes I remembered: Controversies on this subject have been going on for more than 200 years.
Long before the eighth-largest river in the country powered an industrial revolution, or became the water supply for those she drew to her shores, the Savannah River was primarily a conduit for transportation. The river was the lifeline for all inland Georgia and South Carolina.
But like highways, rivers need maintenance, too. Sandbars and other natural debris often lowered the Savannahs navigable depth to less than five feet.
Add the residue from settlements built close to the river, and a growing number of dams and fish traps erected by landowners, and in places, the river became impassable. Add a lack of agreement on whose responsibility it was to keep the river channel open, mix in a little lawlessness, and you have the makings of an economic nightmare.
Perhaps the nightmare wouldnt have been so bad if there had been an agreement where the boundary between the two states lay. Though South Carolina considered the middle of the river the border, Georgia had always claimed the whole river as her own.
Lest Georgia be blamed for wanting more than her share of the valuable resource, the ambiguous wording of the initial charter gave the 13th colony all that part of South Carolina which lies from the northern stream of a river called Savannah....
According to the Articles of Confederation, and later the Constitution, states were supposed to bring their unsettled disputes to Congress.
South Carolina brought the first suit in 1785, but the process to set up the federal court and determine the time and place for the trial was itself fraught with controversy. Finally, Congress stepped in, chose the judges, and set the trial for June, 1787, in New York.
But the trial never took place. If truth be known, neither state wanted the federal government involved. Perhaps on early rumblings of states rights, South Carolina dropped her suit, and agents of both states settled the dispute themselves - sort of. At that time the river was determined equally free to the citizens of both states, neither to impose any duty or toll, or offer any hindrance... to the citizens of the other.
This agreement eased tensions for a while, until the river needed attention. But the old boundary dispute returned, and the states began feuding over who should pay for what share of the work.
By 1815, counties along the river chose commissioners to look for problems and hire superintendents to manage the work. Numerous acts were declared and promises made, including that both states would agree to share the cost equally, but problems remained.
In 1823 the two governors each appointed one commissioner who had a year to determine what needed to be done and how much it would cost. Three years later, each state decided to begin work on her half without waiting for approval from the other.
Funding for public projects was no less difficult two centuries ago than it is today, but it may have been more creative. At first, taxes were levied on those whose land bordered the river, until those paying the river tax complained that just because they lived along the river didnt mean they were the ones who used it.
So that tax was repealed, and a new system, incorporating a public company and selling shares to the public, was established. Shipping costs charged to those who used the river would repay the investors. But this plan didnt work, either.
Then came the feud between the boat owners and the fisherman, and no law setting percentages of the river for navigation and fishing satisfied either group. Complicated further with fines against those who broke whatever law was in place, this plan angered more people than the fishermen, and it, too, was repealed.
Another public company, formed in 1859, might have worked, but along came the Civil War. After the war, the reunited Southern states were more willing to call on the federal government for assistance - hence the editorial from The Chronicle quoted above.
In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the middle of the Savannah River the border between Georgia and South Carolina.
(For more information, see Memorial History of Augusta, by Charles C. Jones, or Old Petersburg and the Broad River Valley of Georgia, by Ellis Merton Coulter.)
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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