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The Turbulent Nineties and Hydro-electrification: The Industrial Archeology of Columbus Part III

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.


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. This lack of waterpower forced new mills, such as the Swift Manufacturing Company (on Sixth Avenue) and Paragon Mills (on Tenth Avenue) in the 1880s, along with the first commercial electric company (a Brush franchise at Paragon) to locate away from the river and rely on steam power. The 1890s were a turbulent time in Columbus and across the country. Only its last two years, after the Spanish American War, were prosperous and exuberant. The age is nostalgically remembered as the last days of leisurely paced life before the onslaught of the noisy, numbing mechanization of the 20th century. It was actually one of the most explosive decades in American history. The Panic of 1893 began the nation’s most severe depression. Bloody and protracted strikes occurred throughout the US. And women's suffrage was beginning its battle. The Eagle and Phenix went into receivership in 1896. G. Gunby Jordan organized a pool of local investors to purchase the mill in June 1898 when it was up for sale at a public auction. He then organized crews with sledgehammers to go through the mill buildings smashing obsolete equipment. The revitalization of the Eagle and Phenix began a decade of rapid industrial growth stimulated by the hydroelectric development of the river. However, the spirit of reform and the search for new alternatives were becoming evident in Columbus with the election of L.H. Chappell as Mayor in 1897. The businessman pledged "to every citizen of Columbus, white and Black, rich and poor... an honest, clean, impartial, and progressive city government."

Also in the 1890s, racial segregation in public facilities had been established by a series of “Jim Crow” laws which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of the African American population in Georgia and in Columbus. While Georgia’s rural African American population declined between the 1890s and 1940s, thousands of African Americans migrated to Columbus where neighborhoods with a unique blend of residential, commercial, and cultural uses (like the Liberty District) would be developed. The Liberty District was also located adjacent to the growing railyards and surrounded by the growing industries in the area.

When the railroads reached Columbus in the 1850s, the East Commons (between Sixth and Tenth Avenues) became the logical place for the tracks and rail yard. The railroad, much like the river, would have its influence in the development and location of mill sites. The Muscogee Railroad entered from the southwest and terminated in the east common. The Columbus and Western Railroad, coming from Opelika, Alabama, entered the city on the north common. Both of these lines became part of the Central of Georgia railroad system. This system would also draw industry to develop along its lines - such as Swift Manufacturing, Goldens' Foundry, Paragon, Lummus, Tom's Foods, and RC Cola.

Pictured Above: (left) the 1881 Terminal was located inside the railyard and demolished in the 1980) and (right) the Sixth Avenue Passenger Station, c. 1901 Pictured Below: Lower Southern Railway Bridge

In September 1866, Horace King, noted African American bridge builder, and Asa Bates, a railroad contractor, completed the first bridge (at the intersection of 9th Street and Front Avenue) consisting of wooden Town Lattice deck trusses supported by wooden piers rising from stone foundations. Presumably, this structure lasted until 1904, when it was replaced by the present steel bridge. In 1904, the American Bridge Company of New York erected the Lower Southern Railway Bridge. It contains one through-plate-girder span across Bay Avenue, one deck-plate-girder span on the Georgia side, and then, crossing the river, six steel Pratt deck trusses resting on brick piers with ashlar bases. The first Fourteenth Street Bridge was a covered bridge erected in 1856 by John Godwin and Horace King and was funded by the factory owners to carry workers from their Alabama homes to the mills. King built a similar replacement after the Civil War. In 1901, the city constructed a new structure with five 140-foot through-pratt, pin-connected trusses with a wooden floor resting on four concrete piers. This modern bridge was designed to carry the trolley cars to Phenix City. In 1922, the present concrete structure was poured underneath the steer trusses with only minimal interruption of traffic. Four new piers and the four existing piers were converted to filled spandrel arches (seven spans of 17 feet 9 inches and two end spans of 59 feet 9 inches). (Garret & Stack of Atlanta, architects; Hardaway Construction Company, Columbus, builder)

G. Mote Williams and William August Swift, son of George P. Swift, started Swift Manufacturing Company in 1882 under the name Excelsior Mills. They began operation with a few looms producing check and plaid fabric on the second floor of Temperance Hall on the corner of First Avenue in Columbus between 13th and 14th streets. Temperance Hall was the scene of much of the civic, social, and cultural life in Columbus and in 1872 housed the city's first public school for African Americans. The enterprise was successful, and in the same year, George P. Swift Sr., George P. Swift Jr., William A Swift, Louis Hamburger, and G. M. Williams, all five well-known local businessmen, applied for a charter for a textile mill. In 1883, the Swift Manufacturing Company was founded and moved to their new location on Sixth Avenue. Work clothes were in demand and one of their major products was denim. William A Swift was elected treasurer and G. Mote Williams became president, a position he held until his death in 1897. His son, Harry L. Williams, was elected president of the mill in 1906, a position he held for 31 years. Until 1897, the company had no carding and spinning capabilities, which changed when a pair of steam engines manufactured by the Providence Steam Engine Company were imported from England. In 1962 the company was sold to the Glen Arden Corporation of New York. The company continued to operate under the same management without change in their manufacturing operations. At that time, Charlton H. Williams was president of Swift Manufacturing. The company had 2,000 employees and sales offices in the Empire State Building in New York and in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. All stockholders sold their stock to Glen Arden, which meant that local control of the company had, for the first time, shifted to an outside interest. The mill ceased operations in 1998. Fire erupted at the complex in 2011. The remaining buildings include the Boiler House, Mill No. 3 and Mill No. 4 of the 6th Avenue Plant, the White Building Plant, and the 7th Avenue Plant. They have been recently renovated and adaptively re-used as apartments and office space.

Goldens’ Foundry and Machine Company is the oldest operating iron fabricating plant in Columbus, Georgia. In 1882, two brothers, Theodore E. Golden and J. Poitevent Golden who learned their skills at the Columbus Iron Works, opened a small foundry and machine shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Thirteenth Street. Initially, this firm typified the dozen or so small iron-working operations which began within the city in the two decades after the Civil War. While most of these floundered and eventually failed, Goldens' expanded until it almost rivaled its antecedent, the Columbus Iron Works. In 1889, the Golden brothers, joining with A. Illges, a local businessman, incorporated the company and moved one block south. From that point forward, the company and its footprint continued to expand. The Foundry still operates today under the leadership of the George Golden Boyd family.

Originally known as Paragon (1888-1894), this factory operated as Hamburger Mill from 1894 to 1923 and as Bradley Manufacturing Company from 1923 until 1945. The original gothic style structures represent the best example of decorative "New South" industrial architecture in Columbus. The buildings are located on the northeast corner of Wynnton Road and Tenth Avenue. Paragon Mills was also originally built by the Swift family. They were shortly bought out by their partner, Louis Hamburger, who renamed it to Hamburger Cotton Mills. He passed the mill on to his son, George Swift Hamburger. The mill went through financial difficulty in the 1910s and was eventually purchased by W. C. Bradley, who renamed the mill once again. After his death in the 1940s, his family sold the mill and exited the textile business. The mill was repurposed to house non-textile related industries. While these buildings remain, their facades have been modified and additions have obscured their details. Today, the mill still stands and is home to a thrift mall. From about 1888 until 1896, in a small plant adjacent to the textile mill, the Brush Light and Electric Company operated a small steam generated facility which supplied the city with all its commercial electricity. Royal Crown Cola used these buildings as warehouses for many years.

Located on 18th Street, the Columbus Electric and Power Company, was the first central hydroelectric generating station in Columbus. From 1887-1906 it produced most of the electricity used for street, commercial and residential lighting, and for small power needs. The equipment was dismantled in 1951, and shortly afterward the structure burned.

In 1895, the Columbus Railroad Company established the city's first hydroelectric station at the City Mills dam (pictured above). Leasing this site and limited waterpower from the City Mills, they installed four 68-inch vertical Samson Leffel turbines in 1894 and added two more in 1896. From 1896 until 1902, this station supplied all of the city's commercial transmitted electricity. In 1897, its equipment included one 125-light Brush and three 50-light Thomson-Houston dynamos for arc lighting (initially operated by the Brush Light and Electric Company); three General Electric 1100-volt and two Westinghouse 2200-volt generators for incandescent lighting; and two General Electric 550-volt railway generators. After the development of the 1902 North Highland Dam (which by contrast had five 39-inch horizontal Holyoke Hercules turbines directly connected to five 1,080 Kilowatt Stanley generators), and the merger of all the power companies under Stone and Webster (1906), the Columbus Railroad station became a very minor producer of current, even though its machinery was gradually modernized. Georgia Power stopped leasing the site in 1950 and removed all the equipment except the turbines.

Pictured Above: Lummus Industries

The roots of this firm extend back into the antebellum period. Israel Brown, a northerner who came to Georgia in the 1820s, worked with Daniel Pratt in Milledgeville and Alabama before becoming the mechanical genius of W. G. Clemons, Brown, and Company (1850s) which manufactured cotton gins in Columbus. In 1858, Brown returned to Connecticut but kept his southern holdings. In 1869, according to "company legend," he exchanged his Columbus interests for those of F.M. Lummus in Connecticut. Lummus Industries began producing gins in Columbus in 1869 and then moved the enterprise, in 1871, to a waterpower site at Juniper, Georgia, about 20 miles east of Columbus. In 1899, the company returned to Columbus, increased its capitalization (with A. Illges becoming a major investor), and began construction at 710 Tenth Avenue.

Pictured Above: Bibb Mill (c.1901) and the first North Highland Dam

The commercial possibilities of electricity encouraged the large investments necessary to develop new dams north of the city. The Bibb Manufacturing Company, a Georgia-wide textile firm (with sizeable blocks of stock held by Columbusites), constructed the North Highland Dam and two powerhouses. This curved, boulder concrete structure (728-foot rollway), with a cut stone spillway surface, forms the western side of a funnel which diverts water into the forebay of the powerhouse on the eastern side of the river. Called the first large-scale dam (effective head of 40 feet) built in the South, construction began in 1899 and it remained incomplete when it partially collapsed under high water in 1901. The western powerhouse generated commercial electricity for the Columbus Power Company (owned by the Bibb Company). The eastern one powered the Bibb Mill on the bluff above through an American (continuous) rope drive (6,000 feet of 1 1/2-inch manila rope in 32 wraps). A 50-foot shaft drove another rope drive (in the western-most bay of the mill) that operated line-shafting on four floors. This system motivated some machinery in the original mill until 1954 when the driven sheave directly above the powerhouse sheared-off the shaft. Bibb abandoned the system and Georgia Power built one modern concrete powerhouse in 1959 with four units producing 29,600 kilowatts, but the dam remains unchanged.

Columbus Manufacturing Company (1901) and Swift Spinning (1906) would soon be built within a few blocks of the Columbus Plant of the Bibb Company and would utilize electricity from the North Highlands Dam. During the same period, to the east of the city the adjoining Perkins and Topsy (later combined as the Jordan) Mills were established. All of these new operations were located just beyond the city limits. (Even so, the somewhat urban concentration of textile mills in Columbus differed from the typical Carolina mill which tended to be located in a more isolated, rural setting surrounded by its own village.) By 1910, textile growth slowed, especially the creation of new mills, even though existing firms continued to expand. By that date the local mills experienced a serious shortage of skilled labor. The creation of additional electricity by the new Goat Rock Dam (1910-1911) resulted in just one new factory, Meritas Mill (1911). Only two small hosiery mills (Archer, 1929 & Shannon, 1939) began during the next two decades. Next Week: Our final installment will cover the Bibb Mill and village, Columbus Manufacturing, Swift Spinning, Jordan Mills, Meritas Mill, Archer Mills, and Shannon Mills.

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