Monday, April 11, 2005


River ripe for exploration


The Telegraph
By Barbara Stinson
April 10, 2005

You've got to admit the notion of scuba diving in the Ocmulgee looking for artifacts beneath the brown water doesn't have the same appeal as diving off tropical reefs looking for sunken treasure.

That is unless you're Stephen Hammock and his band of dedicated archaeology professionals and amateurs. Hammock is a native son who couldn't be happier digging in dirt or swimming in murky Ocmulgee waters, looking to record and preserve the history of Macon.

And, after you get past the townsfolk' snickers and the river's murkiness, river research is actually a whale of an idea. Exploring Macon's past as a riverfront town under water will provide a whole new perspective to history buffs who have dug in, around and under dirt clods on both sides of the river for decades in documenting our Indian and early settler heritage.

The river bottoms are ripe for exploration.

A two-year-old book by Carlton A. Morrison, "Running the River" with a subtitle of "Poleboats, steamboats and timber rafts on the Altamaha, Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ohoopee" provides fascinating details, drawn mostly from newspaper archives, into the pre-railroad, non-interstate era of travel on our natural waterways.

Remnants of that travel are ripe for documenting. The Ocmulgee River was the main link between Fort Hawkins and the rest of the world for the first 50 years of the 19th century.

The book adds details and drama to the stories about how flat boats, pole boats and finally steamboats traversed the 334 water miles between Macon and Darien. (The Ocmulgee T-bones with the Oconee to form the Altamaha on the final stretch to the coast.)

Flat boats were the first commercial ferries. They floated their cotton bale cargo downstream and then were dismantled so the lumber could be reused. Later, poleboats and their mostly slave crews were used to power these re-usable crafts back upstream. The boats carried cotton downstream from Macon's Wharf Street docks and other stops to coastal shipping markets and brought back whiskey, sugar, coffee, rice and most important, salt.

It wasn't until January of 1829 that the first steamboat made the eight-day upstream trip to Macon, according to the Morrison book. The steamboat glory days, however, lasted only about 25 years, as railroads quickly developed as a more dependable form of transport.

The book documents the commercial and government's efforts to keep the midstate rivers as a viable shipping route, as well as the dangers and deaths from steamboat explosions. The navigability of the river was always a problem that needed fixing.

One of the things the divers will be looking for is evidence of the steamboat loading docks that dotted the Ocmulgee's banks, and any underwater remains from the boats, their cargo or the people who lived here. Hammock is working through the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society to secure a grant to begin the project this summer.

He's a professional. He majored in underwater archaeology in graduate school and is employed doing what he loves - archaeological research projects, currently on Robins Air Force Base property. Hammock will get word early next month whether or not the local OAC group will get a Professional Association of Diving Instructors foundation grant to help with specific training needed for the river exploration. He's got the support of and a commitment from the International City Scuba Club, and grant money would be used for expenses of the National Park Services Submerged Resources training team to lend their expertise.

Hammock says a few divers hope to make a scouting dive by month's end in the waters between the Spring Street and Otis Redding bridges. After that, they will have to wait on the grant before proceeding with their full-scale research. They will also be excavating at the Old Waterworks site, believed to hold important historical artifacts.

The research Hammock and his group of dedicated volunteers do provides great historical finds and information, but it is not a participatory sport for the public. It's called "looting" for anyone to remove artifacts from public property, including the river. The materials need to be preserved and documented by trained preservationists. The rest of us will have to wait for a museum showing.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?