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Wholesale Observations: Augusta, Ga.
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

One of Georgia’s oldest cities is Augusta. It sits roughly in the middle of the state, but on the GA – SC line. Just across the Savannah River are the towns of North Augusta, Aiken, and Edgefield, SC.

I was familiar with all of them, due to my family’s wholesale hardware business having retail customers there for many years.

Sadly, most of them are no more, victims of time and changing business connections.

My wife and I have been to Augusta many times; and for a couple of years, some years ago, she worked for Doctors Hospital, home to the famed Joseph Still Burn Center, which offers specialized care for people suffering from burns. A truly amazing facility.

One of the more unusual places in Augusta is the Riverwalk, built on a levee high above the Savannah River. At Tenth Street, there is a huge gate underneath the Riverwalk, in between the Morris Museum of (Southern) Art and the Marriott Hotel.

Years ago, the Savannah River would occasionally flood downtown Augusta, so the city fathers had these huge wooden gates built, that would slide into slots in the gate under the riverwalk, to prevent water from reaching into downtown. Carved into the brick facings of this gate are watermarks and dates, showing where the river crested during various floods. A truly amazing thing to see. Also frightening, to see how high the water levels actually reached.

Augusta, like many other cities, has seen both economic boom times and busts. And, as the population grew and the town expanded, business and residential areas shifted as well. The old downtown is home to what was for many years one of the only three Greek Orthodox churches in the state, the other two being Savannah and Atlanta. I have been in and attended services in all three of them.

The old downtown area is also home to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, and also Sacred Heart Catholic Church. I went there once, many years ago, for the funeral of the man who had been the Augusta territory salesman for my family’s business for nearly 50 years; it was a gorgeous building, built during one of Augusta’s prosperous periods, 100 or so years ago; and could easily have been a bishop’s cathedral, it was so fine.

I found out some years later that the architect who designed that building also designed St.

Joseph’s Catholic Church in downtown Macon, and Sacred Heart Church in Savannah, where my family attended for many years.

Sadly, as the Augusta population shifted, over time, the congregation dwindled to the point it was no longer self-sustaining, and eventually closed. The initial plan had been to demolish it and put up a parking deck, but the citizens objected loudly – rightfully so – and it has since been repurposed into a Cultural Center instead. At least it was saved.

Two other interesting places in downtown “old Augusta” are both on Broad Street, their main downtown shopping street. One is the Book Tavern, a huge used bookstore that used to be a block or two west, but ran out of room and had to find a bigger space. Their selections are enormous, and because they buy books as well as sell them, you never know what you might find there! We always stop in when we are in town, and rarely leave without a couple of prizes we came across unexpectedly.

The other is an art-consignment shop a few blocks west, called – appropriately enough -- “Art on Broad.” They stock a wide variety of items by individual artists, and it too is one place we always make a point to visit when we are in town. Prices are reasonable, the art is inventive, and the offerings cover a wide range of types. A truly amazing place.

The last place we always try to visit when we are in town is the Savannah Rapids Park, about a dozen miles west, where the Savannah River begins. There is a large pavilion built on the bluff above the shoals where the river begins, and an old lock and dam where the river starts to become deep enough for big boats. A trail runs parallel to the river, all the way into downtown Augusta, where it meets the Riverwalk.

The scenery there is spectacular, and it is very popular with hikers, bikers, kayakers, families, and students out for a walk. Amazing to see where the river actually begins, in shoals so shallow a kayak could not go, but then begins a steep drop as the topography changes, and the river deepens.

Rafe Semmes is a native of Savannah and a proud graduate of (the “original”) Savannah High School on Washington Avenue and the University of Georgia. He has resided in Liberty County since 1986, where he and his wife share their half-acre with six cats and assorted wildlife. He has served on several area non-profit boards, and is a longtime member of the Rotary Club. He has a wide range of interests, including history and literature, photography and travel, and music and theatre, among others. He may offer occasional guest columns as time permits.

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