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The Industrial Archeology of Columbus: 1828 - 1865 (Part 1)

Hello everyone!

I hope you and yours had a wonderful holiday season. Today, we are kicking off the new year with a new series on our community's industrial history that will take us through the month of January. I hope you all will find this small dive into this part of our history and those that made it possible as interesting as I have.

It is our industrial and engineering heritage that created the Columbus Historic Riverfront Industrial District (five non-contiguous mill sites along the river) which was declared a National Historic Landmark District (NHLD) in 1978. That designation means that those sites as a group have national significance. To put it in perspective of the National Register - today, there are only 2,597 National Historic Landmark sites and districts in the entire United States as opposed to 94,080 National Register sites and districts.

Each of you has made a difference in Columbus because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. Your love for our town is the driving force behind everything that happens at Historic Columbus. As always, if you have questions or concerns about anything, please do not hesitate to contact me at our office 706-322-0756 or Thank you for all you do for this organization and our community.

Elizabeth B. Walden

Executive Director

SOURCES: Industrial Archeology of Columbus, Georgia: A Tour Guide for the 8th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Archeology, April 1979 by Dr. John S. Lupold, Columbus, Georgia 1828 - 1978 by Dr. John S. Lupold, the Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress, and The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail by Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia, 2015.


Textile production had its roots planted in Georgia soon after the American Revolution, when Eli Whitney, in collaboration with Catharine Green, invented the cotton gin in Chatham County in 1793. The cotton gin transformed cotton into a marketable commodity and became a familiar feature across the cotton fields of Georgia in the 19th century. The manufacturing of cotton began in the northern states in 1790, when Slater Mill started spinning cotton into yarn in Rhode Island. The industry spread throughout the New England states over the next several decades. In 1814, Boston investors opened the first planned textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, which introduced the power loom. Now, factories could process raw cotton into cloth in one factory. The creation of mill towns, with housing for workers, became popular in the north and spread into southern communities as well. Georgians began to invest in building textile mills in the 1810s. These were small, water powered cotton factories established along the fall line, a strip of land across the piedmont from Columbus to Augusta where rapids provided sufficient waterpower to operate the mills. The Georgia legislature established Columbus in 1828 specifically as a "trading town" at the head of navigation of the Chattahoochee River. Crossing the fall line at Columbus, the river drops 125 feet within 2 1/2 miles and produces a potential energy of at least 66,000 horsepower. This hydropower attracted entrepreneurs, investment capital, and laborers to Columbus - including those free and enslaved. Those individuals and their contributions were also instrumental in the planning, building, education, and entertainment that has shaped Columbus since its founding.

The first industry to harness the river, City Mills (a grist mill) began operating before the end of 1828. This was the year Columbus was established, and the initial dam constructed on the Chattahoochee River would begin powering the new mill. The surviving structures at this site include the Flour Mill (1890) with some of its original power transmission and grinding equipment installed from 1890 to 1903; the warehouse (1890 & 1914); abutments of the rubble masonry dam (1904-1907, 10-foot head); and the remains and turbines of the Columbus Railroad Company powerhouse (1894-1896), the city's first central-station hydroelectric plant.

The Richmond City Mill Works of Richmond, Indiana, built the six-story brick structure for our City Mills, known as the Flour Mill (c. 1890 – 1891). It was the largest, most modern grist mill in Columbus at the time. After building a concrete dam in 1908, the company revamped the power system in this mill. The firm never realized its anticipated market and never modernized this facility. Much of the machinery remained where it was phased out of production starting in the 1940s: three 62 inch Leffel Samson turbines (replaced in 1929); the massive hurst frame (1908) which isolated the vibrations of the drive shaft from the rest of the structure; seven 48 inch grinding stones; an inoperable 175 kilowatt General Electric generator (1919); small flour roller mills (perhaps as early as 1891); Gruendler pulverizers (1929 and later); and, on the other floors, a system of dravers, batch mixers, sifters, and bagging equipment (some 1890). Today, some of the original machinery remains in the basement floor while the upper floors and the warehouse building have been adaptively re-used as the City Mills Hotel.

In 1832, construction started on the first local textile mill, Clapp's Factory, at a site (now Oliver Dam) three miles north of the town. Indicative of the rapidity with which "frontier" Columbus industrialized, the Creek Indian War of 1835 – 1836 delayed the factory's completion until 1838. A small dam between an island and the eastern bank powered a yarn mill, a tannery, and a grist mill. Workers lived in the surrounding village. The company reorganized and rebuilt after the war but went bankrupt in 1885. The abandoned, wooden structure, erected in 1866 and built by master builder and former enslaved, Horace King, burned in 1910. In 1925, the property on which the Clapp's Factory Cemetery is located is purchased by the Georgia Power Co. from the Clapp family. Oliver Dam was built north of the cemetery in 1955. The dam now covers the old mill site; however, the area south of the dam remains the site of the operatives' cemetery.

During the 1840s, the political and economic leadership of Columbus sought to establish industries within the town. The city council sold nineteen riverfront lots that would run from what eventually became the Eagle & Phenix Mill to the Muscogee Mill (now TSYS/Global Payments), for a nominal price to John H. Howard and Josephus Echols provided they furnish waterpower to all the lots. They constructed a dam (at the present 14th Street bridge) and the Coweta Falls Factory (owned by Howard and others) began operating in 1844. In 1846, John G. Winter, one of the richest men in Columbus, and William Brooks launched the Variety Mills which manufactured textiles, sawed lumber, and ground wheat and corn. Winter also operated the Rock Island Paper Mill just north of the city on the Alabama side of the river. In 1847, the Georgia legislature passed an act to encourage industrial development. Three years later, Georgia had 50 cotton and woolen mills producing coarse wool and cotton duck. A decade later, six mills (both textile and grist) lined the head race below the dam in Columbus.

Underscoring the community’s commitment to manufacturing was the impressive public ceremony in 1847 when construction began on the Howard Factory. This textile mill was financed by a group of investors and began operation in 1848. Like its neighbors sharing the dam, the Howard Factory sold most of its products in Georgia and Alabama, but it did ship some goods to New Orleans and Memphis and sent its scrap yarns and materials to New York. In early 1849, the Columbus Enquirer observed: “All that is wanting to make our city not only the Lowell of the South but of the United States is capital, and that is rapidly tending towards it.” More investment came that year with William H. Young, a New Yorker, who had noted the river’s energy in 1827 even before the city existed. After making a fortune as a merchant in Florida, Young returned to begin the Eagle Mill in 1850. It quickly became the city’s most successful mill. In 1860, the Eagle absorbed the faltering Howard Factory making the combine operation one of the largest textile factories in the South. With Young’s commercial knowledge he readily found a market for its products and its dividends ranged between 20 and 25 percent.

Urban slavery thrived in Columbus, and many were apprenticed to local butchers, carpenters, masons, and tailors. The 1860 census reveals that enslaved people made up 36 percent of the city’s population, approximately 3,265 people. While the movements and activities of the 165 free Blacks in Muscogee County, as in other areas of the South were severely limited, the antebellum South was not a segregated society. Blacks and whites participated together in many of their daily activities, though never as equals. Columbus was one of the Confederacy's most important centers of industry, and Columbus’ enslaved population played a central role in our town's economic life. An incredible amount of the raw material of cotton was needed for the textile mills to meet its production needs, so it was up to those enslaved to plant and harvest this cash crop. Although there were no large plantations in the urban parts of the city, these large estates could be found on the outskirts of town and in the surrounding counties.

Photo courtesy of Judith Grant. Columbus, GA.

By 1860, Columbus (Muscogee County) ranked second only to Richmond in southern textile production. In addition, its paper mill, furniture factory, cotton gin manufacturer, and iron foundries made Columbus a rather diversified industrial city. During the Civil War, Columbus supplied the Confederacy with textile products, gun carriages, cannon and shot, Indian rubber cloth, tents, military caps and uniforms, steam engines, and gun boats. In addition to supplying Columbus and Georgia units, the Eagle's fabrics clothed soldiers organizing in Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. This mill's output mirrored the feverish rate of production reached in Columbus. By 1862, it ran two twelve-hour shifts, and its daily production included 1,500 yards of cotton duck for tents, 2,000 yards of heavy gray tweed for uniforms, and $1,500 worth of other cotton materials and thread. Each week the Eagle Mill also turned out 1,000 yards of India rubber cloth and 1,800 pounds of rope. The Confederate government consumed about three-fourths of the Eagle's goods.

Battle of Columbus and Girard, night of April 16, 1865. (Georgia Magazine)

On April 17, 1865, eight days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, General James H. Wilson's troops burned every industry in Columbus except the grist mills. During Reconstruction (1865-1871), the Columbus Freedmen's Bureau mediated wages between owner and former enslaved. African American women and children would also seek new opportunities through education, the creation of social organizations, and in politics. Liberated people were oftentimes skilled craftspeople and artisans, but instead of opportunities to ply their trades, they were forced into tenant farming. While the mills used some African Americans to haul cotton bales and perform other menial tasks, they were not allowed to become operatives. The newspaper, at the time, constantly urged the freedmen to go back to the country. With the mills in ashes, hundreds of white factory workers, many who came during the war, formed another destitute group within the city. No agency like the Freedman's Bureau supported them, but they were called "deserving" and "virtuous" poor by the newspaper. They received relief from the federal government, the state, the city, and private individuals. In addition to those funds, they subsisted by cleaning burned bricks, doing menial jobs, and a lot of fishing. Industrial reconstruction began almost immediately, primarily because of the continuity between the antebellum and post-war mills in terms of managers, investors, and laborers. The presence of these unemployed workers added a sense of urgency to the rebuilding of the mills. Columbus didn't wait fifteen years for industrialization. It became one of the first "New South" cities, and its industrial success inspired other Southern towns to imitate it.

Pictured is the letterhead of Muscogee Manufacturing Company. The mills produced textiles such as cottonade, a heavy, coarse cotton fabric often used in work clothes. Muscogee Manufacturing was established by the Swift family, owners of the Swift Mills; SG Murphy; and John J. Grant. Many mill owners in Columbus invested in multiple textile operations. This letterhead was used for official letters and documents from the mill. (Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress)

In 1867 and 1868, just two years following the Civil War, two of Columbus’ most significant textile mills would be formed – The Eagle & Phenix and Muscogee Mills. During the 1870s, textile manufacturing expanded more rapidly in Columbus than in any other southern city, even though only two companies occupied the Columbus riverfront sites. Muscogee Manufacturing Company (1867) utilized one lot, while the Eagle and Phenix (1866) --the South's largest mill in the late l870s--eventually controlled the other eighteen lots. By 1880, Columbus led the South in textile production. During the following decade, other southern textile centers such as Augusta grew faster than Columbus, partially because the Eagle & Phenix monopolized the available waterpower. The lack of waterpower forced new mills, two smaller ones in the 1870s (Cleggs & Cotton Steam Mill), two larger ones in the 1880s (Swift & Paragon), and the first commercial electric company (a Brush franchise at Paragon) to locate away from the river and rely on steam power. Next Week: We will explore more of the economic growth and industrial archeology of Columbus through Muscogee Mills, the Eagle & Phenix, Clegg’s Mill, Georgia Manufacturing, Empire Mills, Swift Manufacturing, Paragon/Hamburger/Bradley, and others to take us through the turn of the century.

One last word of thanks... As you all hopefully know, none of this is possible without the incredible time and hard work of the Historic Columbus Board of Directors and Staff. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with them and for you. I am extremely blessed that you all have provided me with the ability to do what I love, where I love, and with such talented and smart people like Walker, Debbie, Palmer, and Justin. There's much more fun to come in 2022! Thank you and Happy New Year!

You can access ALL of Historic Columbus' History and Preservation Spotlights here: AND Tuesdays With Justin here: Historic Columbus (GA) - YouTube

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1 commentaire

21 juil. 2022

Looking for information on mill workers in 1916-1920. My family lived at these address on the City Directories. 1st av P C, 114 1st Av & 1425 Lgt Av. We think some of them died while working & living there. They were poor and could not pay for a burial. Any ideas where they might have been buried? Or any information on poor people burials. Sybil Cauley Opelika, Al

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