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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Savannah River and Tributaries

Savannah River and Tributaries

The Savannah River is an alluvial stream, which means its headwaters originate in the Georgia mountains and Piedmont. (The only other alluvial river on the Georgia coast is the Altamaha. The rest are essentially blackwater rivers or tidewater rivers.) The river is famous for its fossil oysterbeds located upstream. Technically, the Savannah River is a 300-mile-long river originating near Hartwell, Georgia at the confluence of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers in the Piedmont. But the headwaters of these streams are in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Savannah River drains a surface area of more than 10,500 square miles, of which approximately 5,800 are in Georgia, 4,500 are in South Carolina, and 175 are in North Carolina.

The Savannah River has two characters: the impounded alluvial Piedmont stream north of Augusta, and the natural flowing Coastal Plain river south of Augusta. The character of the mountain stream north of Augusta is forever obliterated by many hydroelectric dams, which creates a river that's more like a lake in most stretches. Eight miles below Augusta, the river meets its final dam before being left to its own devices in the Coastal Plain of Georgia. This lower portion to Interstate 95 near the City of Savannah is deeper and calmer, and canoeists are treated to a more pristine environment, with oxbow lakes, river swamps, and bottomland forests.

Here nature lovers will find typical river swamp species including canopy trees such as baldcypress, swamp blackgum, tupelo, overcup oak, water hickory, and green ash, and understory flora such as swamp dogwood, swamp privet, and swamp palm. Fauna found along the Savannah River include muskrat, otter, beaver, mink, opossum, raccoon, fox, skunks, and white-tailed deer. A diversity of reptiles and amphibians is encountered including poisonous snakes such as eastern cottonmouths, southern copperheads, and rattlesnakes.

Legions of anglers were once attracted by the abundant populations of striped bass that were found in the Savannah River, the best such fishery in Georgia and South Carolina. But intrusions of salt water from dredging to increase the river's depth, along with the Back River tide gate, increased salinity levels that wiped out 95 percent of the fish's eggs. Officials stopped using the tide gate, and striped bass populations are in recovery.

As colonists spread out in America, they frequently sailed upriver to the interior looking for a high (and thus dry) bluff to build a settlement. Georgia was no exception. In 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe first established Savannah on Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River. The river is known as having the highest bluffs of any Georgia river. One year later, German Lutherans seeking religious freedom sailed 30 miles up the river to establish the town of Ebenezer. In 1736, a fort was established farther up the river at Augusta, which later developed into one of Georgia's major cities. The first eight counties established in the original Georgia Constitution of 1777 reflect this pattern of development, with four on the coast (Chatham, Liberty, Glynn, and Camden) and four upriver from Savannah along the river (Effingham, Burke, Richmond, and Wilkes). The river also became important as a source of cheap energy, and cities were established on rivers along Georgia's fall line (Columbus, Macon, and Augusta) to harness their power for emerging industries.

Tuckassee King Landing

[Fig. 3(1)] Tuckassee King Landing, in Effingham County 3 miles east of Clyo on 119, is a popular access site to the Savannah River, and features an unusual natural area. Tuckassee King was named for a Yuchi Indian chief from a nearby village and was the first county seat of Effingham County. Here the early Baptists in coastal Georgia first organized, and a short distance away is an exact replica of the first Baptist church in Georgia. The boat ramp is located on a creek 200 yards from the Savannah River beside a picturesque mesic (moist) bluff approximately 75 to 100 feet high. A mesic bluff is a flat-top geological feature formed by river erosion over many years. Due to the elevation, moisture content of the soil, and northern (cooler) orientation, a forest may develop with herbs, shrubs, and trees that are more characteristic of the mountainous region of Georgia. Near Tuckassee King Landing, an unusual variety of plants are found including liverworts, mosses, and wild ginger. Legendary naturalist William Bartram traveled through the region in 1775-1776 and noted the strange assemblage of plants.

Ebenezer Creek

[Fig. 3] In Effingham County near the historic community of New Ebenezer is Ebenezer Creek, a tributary of the Savannah River. Ebenezer Creek, a backwater stream, is one of only three of Georgia's designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, and the only one on the coast, and is certainly a natural treasure. Also designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service, the river swamp consists of unusual virgin dwarfed baldcypress, with huge swollen buttresses from 8 to 12 feet wide, supporting unusually small diameter tree trunks. Some of these trees are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. The tupelo gum exhibit unusual counterclockwise twisting, which remains a scientific mystery as to the cause. Eight miles of the tributary creek, according to Dr. Charles Wharton, are a type of elongate lake, created by the damming effect of natural levees and water levels of the Savannah River.

When the Savannah River rises to a particular height during seasonal floods and heavy rains, it backs up water in the Ebenezer tributary, not unlike the hydrologic system in coastal marsh areas when tides back water up the channels of tidal creeks and rivers. This elongate lake rarely goes dry, but water levels may fluctuate as much as 8 feet and can remain high for long periods of time, Wharton writes. Low nutrient input, unusually long periods of high water levels, and a lack of floodplain to provide nutrients may cause dwarfing, and long periods of deep inundation with low oxygen levels may be responsible for the enormous buttresses. Scientists believe the swollen buttresses are an adaptation that provides inundated trees with increased surface area for oxygen intake.

Impoundments upstream from the Savannah River have altered and interrupted the natural hydrologic patterns of Ebenezer, causing concern for the health of the backwater stream. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has experimented with altering water release patterns from J. Strom Thurmond Dam near Augusta to see if high-flow releases could help the swamp. The unusual swamp has a low-nutrient natural system that makes it more sensitive to nuisance aquatic plant growth, which negatively affects water quality. Florida exotic plants—alligator weed and water hyacinth—have recently invaded the swamp and become a nuisance to the native species.

The creek is traditionally an excellent spot for fishing for striped bass, which spawn here, and canoeists will witness turtles, snakes, alligators, and many species of birds including woodpeckers, wading birds, and vultures. Insects abound here as well, so bring your repellant. Botanically, the creek supports many aquatic species including pennywort, parrot feather, carnivorous bladderwort, floating mosquito fern, and duckweed. The mosquito fern forms large floating mats and during the winter, its leaves turn bright red. The baldcypress and water tupelo host epiphytes such as Spanish moss, resurrection fern, greenfly orchid, and the parasitic mistletoe, which is much more obvious in wintertime. The ruins of ancient railroad bridge pilings near the southern end stand in pairs as testament to the water-resistant qualities of cypress. Water tupelo near this section stand over 100 feet tall, making a hardwood cathedral.

Canoeists who don't mind paddling upstream can access the backwater stream at Ebenezer Landing, at the end of GA 275 near New Ebenezer. Paddle upstream in the Savannah River, navigating into the first tributary on the left to access Ebenezer Creek. Suggested downstream day trips on Ebenezer include the following: GA 119 to Logs Landing (off GA 21, 0.5 mile on a dirt road at the Georgia historical marker of Old Ebenezer Town), 5 miles, preferable in times of high water during winter and early spring. Logs Landing to Long Bridge (GA 953, 1.2 miles northwest of GA 275), 4 miles, preferable during high water but also navigable in moderate water. Long Bridge to Ebenezer Landing at the Savannah River at the end of GA 275 near New Ebenezer, 5.5 miles. Paddle upstream for about 0.5 mile to view virgin cypress swamp before heading downstream to Savannah River.

In 1734, Lutherans escaping religious persecution in Salzburg, Austria arrived in the 1-year-old town of Savannah looking for a new home. Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe directed the group approximately 30 miles up the Savannah River to Ebenezer Creek. The Germans traveled another 6 miles up the creek where they established the town of Ebenezer. After two years of struggle at this location, they relocated back downstream to the Savannah River, where they established the settlement of New Ebenezer (see New Ebenezer).

Ebenezer was the historic setting of an infamous Civil War incident. During Sherman's March to the Sea campaign for Savannah, Federal troops under Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis filed across Ebenezer Creek on December 8, 1864, destroying their pontoon bridge behind them. This action stranded on the other side of the river more than 600 slaves that have been following the army column. With Confederate cavalry under Wheeler approaching, many slaves panicked and drowned as they tried to flee by attempting to cross the creek.

Just past Interstate 95, the canoeist encounters the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. The river cuts several channels to the east, working its way through freshwater marsh that historically served as rice plantations in antebellum Georgia. Nearby on the western bank of the river north of the Highway 17 bridge is the old plantation site of Mulberry Grove, granted to Nathanael Greene in appreciation for his service during the Revolutionary War. Eli Whitney, who was tutor of the Greene children, invented the cotton gin here in 1793.

The wildlife refuge serves as a vital haven for many species of waterfowl during the winter. Alligators, snakes, and turtles are very common in the refuge, and during spring and early summer, the bellows of many large alligators can be heard as they perform their ancient mating rituals. The wildlife refuge has many meanders, cuts, and canals and can be fruitfully explored for days (see Savannah Wildlife Refuge).

Below Savannah, the river picks up more of the characteristics of a tidal river, with more treacherous currents, brackish water, and coastal marsh surroundings. Canoeists will encounter heavy commercial maritime traffic, with huge ocean barges carrying their cargo up to the Port of Savannah. Canoeists need to think and prepare carefully before paddling this stretch to the ocean.

The best resource for canoeing and appreciating Georgia's coastal rivers is A Paddler's Guide to Southern Georgia, by Bob Sehlinger and Don Otey. This book lists access points, rates the quality of the canoeing, and describes natural features found on Georgia's rivers.

Suggested canoe trips on the Savannah River: Tuckassee King Landing (3 miles northeast of Clyo) to Ebenezer Landing (north end of Highway 275), 22 miles. Ebenezer Landing (north end of Highway 275) to Purysburg Landing, South Carolina, 13 miles. Purysburg Landing, South Carolina to US 17 bridge,16.5 miles.

New Ebenezer

[Fig. 3(2)] The historic community of New Ebenezer, founded in 1736 on the high bluff overlooking the Savannah River 30 miles upstream from Savannah, features the oldest public building in Georgia in a beautifully serene coastal setting of old cypress, oaks, and flame azalea. Today, those appreciating American, Georgian, Lutheran, and German history can tour Jerusalem Lutheran Church, the old cemetery, and the Georgia Salzburger Society Museum, and learn more about the failures and successes of this colonial town near the wilderness of the Georgia coast. The church is the oldest facility in America with an active congregation. New Ebenezer started Georgia's first public school in 1734 and the first orphanage in 1737.

The industrious Protestant Germans fled Salzburg, Austria in 1734 in search of religious freedom. After consulting with Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe in Savannah, they decided to establish their colony of Ebenezer approximately six miles up Ebenezer creek. Disease and other hardships at that site caused them to relocate to New Ebenezer. Laid out by Noble Jones of Wormslow Plantation in a manner similar to Savannah, this community was much more successful, growing to more than 1,600 residents. Each Salzburger family was given a white mulberry tree from the Trustees' Garden in Savannah, an essential plant in the production of silk. Silk is a naturally produced thread that was a much-valued commodity in colonial times. Many had high hopes for establishing a lucrative silk industry in the New World. However, many difficulties squashed these hopes, except at New Ebenezer, where the silk culture thrived, becoming a good source of income for the Lutherans and earning the town the appellation of "Silk Capital."

All that remains from the original community is the Jerusalem Lutheran Church, the cemetery, and one home. The Jerusalem Lutheran Church, built in 1769, is the second church built on the spot. The 21-inch thick walls consist of handmade brick created from Georgia clay fired in a nearby kiln and carried by women and children to the church site. Some bricks on the front of the building reportedly bear the fingerprints of the Salzburger children. Notice the swan on the steeple, Martin Luther's religious symbol. The Salzburgers of Bavaria who founded the community adopted this symbol. The swan comes from a legend. John Huss, an early reformer of the church, was about to be burned at the stake when he made this statement: "You may burn this goose but out of these ashes will be a swan."

During the Revolutionary War, the British under Col. Archibald Campbell captured the town, set fire to many of the buildings, seized the Salzburgers' possessions, and ruined their gardens. They used Ebenezer as a holding center for prisoners, and the church as a hospital, a storehouse, and then a horse stable. In 1782, the Patriots under Gen. Anthony Wayne drove the British out and in July 1782, the Georgia Legislature met in the church. After the Revolutionary War, with the town in ruins, most of the Salzburger families stayed away.

Today, much of the grounds and buildings have been restored and are in use as an active museum, church, and cemetery. The two-story brick museum, built in 1971, is modeled after the first orphanage and sits on the original site. Inside are many relics from the colonial period. Nearby, the 1755 Salzburger house depicts the type of structure built by early settlers. The cemetery across the street contains a monument to Israel Christian Gronau and John Martin Bolzius, the ministers who led the first Lutherans to Ebenezer. Their actual burial site remains a mystery. A monument near the church is to John Adam Treutlen, an original Salzburger colonist and American patriot who became the first governor of Georgia, only to be murdered in 1782 by Tories near Orangeburg district, South Carolina.

Salzburger descendants return every year on the anniversary of their ancestors' arrival in Georgia on March 12 for a big family reunion that features a religious service and presentations on the history of the colonists. A Family Retreat and Conference Center has been built to reflect the environment of the eighteenth century and is available to church groups, family reunions, school groups, and Scouts. A nature trail connects to the retreat center and British fortifications are found on the grounds.

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