Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Fish Tales and the Conservation State

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Fish Tales and the Conservation State

Article excerpt

For millennia southern marshes, swamps, oxbows, Carolina Bays, steep creeks, mountain bogs, ponds and reservoirs have provided gifts and lessons to their peoples (and of course critters). Among the gifts that wetlands and rivers have given over and over to southern culture are transportation, power, protection, recreation, and clean water to drink, cook with, and bathe in.

I grew up rock-hopping along the Potomac River, camping on the Chesapeake Bay, and ducking waves off the Delmarva before I lived on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, was enthralled by the crystal springs of north Florida, and fell in love with western North Carolina's cold mountain streams. Each experience on the water taught me something new about risks, consequences, and rewards. When I found the Savannah River and its tributaries as a graduate student, I learned these things all over again as I contemplated this river's history. And like my personal investment in southern waters, these stories and their lessons cannot be disconnected from the politics of conservation.


In the early nineteenth century, migratory fish reportedly swam over 380 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains of northeast Georgia near Tallulah Falls to spawn. Well into the 1830s Savannah River valley dwellers--Native Americans, European colonists, and African slaves--all scrambled to capitalize on the seasonal runs. They gathered to eat or to collect fish so others might eat. Then everything began to change during the market revolution. (1)

The early national period's grist and textile mills were powered by water. And to harness this power, mill builders turned to small diversion dams or large projects such as the Augusta Canal. These structures, however, rendered seasonal fish migration and harvests nearly impossible. Canals in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina--like canals in New England described by Henry David Thoreau--successfully provided agricultural and industrial constituencies with transportation arteries and energy sources. The designers and investors had to build dams across the Savannah and Congaree rivers to fill canals to provide energy to factories and to move the boats. While the Augusta Canal's first diversion dam did not stretch across the entire river, subsequent additions to the structure in the 1840s eventually linked the Georgia and South Carolina banks with a single dam by 1857. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the Augusta Canal's diversion dam would be "the only dam" on the Savannah River. (2) And the decision to erect the Augusta Canal's diversion dam, like dams throughout the American South and beyond, created a new river environment.

Engineers built the Augusta Canal dam and the canal head gates--where the canal takes on water from the main stem of the Savannah River--in the heart of the region's fall line where the river tumbles from the Piedmont onto the upper Coastal Plain. At this site water flowed through the series of waterfalls, shoals, and "cataracts" where naturalist Mark Catesby harvested sturgeon in the eighteenth century. After the dam was completed, a "pond" extending "for about 1 1/2 or 2 miles, with an average width of 1,500 feet, interspersed with islands and rocks" buried those shoals and Catesby's fishing spot under the Savannah River's pooling water. (3) Water only flowed over the diversion dam when the canal could not carry all of the river's water (e.g., during a flood). The river's first major bank-to-bank dam also created the river's first artificial reservoir to conserve water for the purpose of generating energy. By the time the Civil War commenced, Augusta's canal was providing water power to numerous cotton mills and factories.

The choice to build the canal dam had major consequences for the river's migratory fish and those dependent on the fish. The Savannah's free flowing water, fed by mountain streams and springs rising as far away as Whitesides Mountain (N. …

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