Jerry Williamson rested on his cane and gazed across the river. "I believe that this is the most beautiful place in all of Chatham County."
Walls of red, mossy-covered brick stretched before him at his feet, and Spanish moss swayed in the gentle coastal breeze above his head. With the spring growth of new leaves and the quiet whisper of the water, it was not hard to understand why.
I had just discovered the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal and Nature Center, and nearly 200 years of history began to unfold.
The Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center is less than an hour from Bluffton but promises several hours of outdoor enjoyment.
Its quietude belies its true purpose: It marks the terminus of the once-active Savannah-Ogeechee Barge Canal. In the days before interstate highways and even widespread railroad, this canal was the equivalent of Interstate 95 and a lifeline of goods and transportation from the heart of Georgia to the bustling city of Savannah. Cutting across 16 miles of swamp and coastal land, it connects the Savannah River to the Ogeechee River and opened a whole new watershed of goods and services to commerce.
The canal was constructed largely by hand and by 1831 was providing cotton, lumber and even peaches to the warehouses and shipyards of Savannah. It was a technological marvel at the time with intricate water locks, giant gates regulating traffic, and countless barges plied back and forth in all seasons.
In time, new technologies took over as railroads surpassed the canal's use, and as it faded from use and slipped into disrepair, it was not completely forgotten. In the 1990s the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society was formed and the nature center was established. Now, several sections of the canal are open for visitors and a beautiful boardwalk crisscrosses the swamp making it a magnet for anyone with an itch to get outside.
And get outside we did. Recently, my family and I visited the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center for the first time. A cottage houses a small museum filled with artifacts and information about the canal and area life throughout its history. From here, a short walk along the old canal towpath takes you through interpretive displays and down to the brick locks themselves.
Boardwalks, benches and five miles of nature trails allow for a few hours or all-day enjoyment. Earlier this month, some friends and I explored the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal by kayak by paddling the Ogeechee River. As we passed between fern-laced brick walls of the locks and under the graceful arch of a walking bridge, it was not hard to feel transported in time to a different era.
As the old song "Low Bridge" goes:
I've got a mule, her name is Sal
Sixteen miles on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal
Sixteen miles on the ... Savannah-Ogeechee Canal
Well, not quite. But what poetry may lack, the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center will put a song in your heart for days gone by.
Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.