Screenshot from the “Chattahoochee Unplugged” documentary of the installation of Waveshaper in 2012.

SC - The Chattahoochee dams in Columbus were removed 10 years ago. Has the river been restored?

The black cormorant spreads its wings wide, taking in the wind to dry its feathers on a breezy fall day. Perched on an outcrop of a boulder on the Chattahoochee River in front of the TSYS office, the bird is joined by another. They share the boulder.

Boulders like these were covered by still, stagnant, and dirty water, unchanged for over a century, by two dams: the Eagle and Phenix and City Mills, until 2012 and 2013. These two dams would undergo “unprecedented dam removal operations” to revive and re-engineer the river creating a 2.5-mile urban whitewater course.

Many refer to this undertaking as the “river restoration project.”

A decade after this river transformation, is the river better off? Is the city better off? Is it restored? This two-part story will take a trip down the Chattahoochee to explore the economic gains and environmental challenges over the last decade that have incurred from the $26 million restoration project.

A brief history

Columbus and the Chattahoochee River are inextricably linked. It is the lifeline of the city.

“If it were not for these dams there would be no Columbus, Georgia,” Dean Wood archeologist of Southern Research Historic Preservation Consultants said.

The older and smaller City Mills dam, built in 1828, the year Columbus and this newspaper was founded, sat about a quarter of a mile (2000 feet) north of where the cormorants are basking in the sun. Between five and eight feet high and made of a stone foundation in a wooden frame, the dam powered a grist mill, grinding corn and feed for animals until the 1980s.

A clipping of the Columbus Daily Enquirer, Nov. 24, 1907
Columbus Daily Enquirer, Nov. 24, 1907.

In 1868, after the Civil War destroyed parts of a massive textile mill, in the heart of downtown Columbus, it was rebuilt from its ashes and then named Eagle and Phenix. It wouldn’t be until two decades later in 1882 that a dam would stretch from Alabama to Georgia across the Chattahoochee to power the cotton textile mill adding a second small reservoir to the region.

The Eagle and Phenix dam was much larger than its predecessor at 30 feet high and 20-30 feet thick, Wood said. “It was the largest masonry dam in the south at the time. There was a need for more horsepower from the technology changes and demand increasing.”

It was made with giant boulders pitted together with concrete. “A monster, and an engineering marvel,” Wood said. It would continue to operate until the 1990s.

In 1972, the National Park Service listed the Columbus Industrial District, including the two masonry dams, as National Historical Landmarks.

 A clipping of the Columbus Daily Enquirer, dated Nov. 30, 1913.
Columbus Daily Enquirer Nov. 30, 1913.

Mill dams out, Waveshaper in

In 2003 W.C. Bradley, the legacy cotton manufacturing company that now works in real estate and selling home goods, purchased the Eagle and Phenix Dam. The safety and stability of the nearly two-century-old dam were not well understood, and W.C. Bradley was liable for any harm incurred.

Ideas to create an urban white water course on the river were floated around by the outdoor store owner, environmentalist, and naturalist Mr. Neal Wickham. Wickman and John Turner, son of the former CEO Bill Turner of W.C. Bradley, heard about engineering rivers to create urban white water courses from other success stories throughout the country.

Wickman and Turner thought: let’s not just remove these nonfunctioning impoundments but actually create waters that are more appealing to kayakers and rafters bringing in tourists and money to the city. This is highlighted in the Chattahoochee Unplugged documentary.

Uptown Columbus was on board and funded the project. Planning and feasibility efforts to remove the dams and transform the river for kayak and white water recreation would take place for two years.

Uptown Columbus, Turner, and others assembled an all-star project team: engineers, hydrologists, divers, historic preservationists, the Army Core of Engineers, environmental scientists, biologists, and professional kayaker and wave-making engineer Rick McLaughlin, to name a few.

After many tests in labs, computer simulations, and underwater soil probing to understand the river’s potential, it was understood by McLaughlin that once these dams were removed, the river wouldn’t offer waves that were appealing to kayakers and rafters. Humans would have to build and shape the river to make waves.

A screenshot from the “Chattahoochee Unplugged” documentary. A rendering of the simulation of the Waveshaper.
A screenshot from the “Chattahoochee Unplugged” documentary. A rendering of the simulation of the Waveshaper. Credit: Screenshot

A steel mechanical, 60-foot-wide structure with movable veins shaped like airplane wings dubbed “waveshaper” would do the trick. This fluctuation was key given the North Highlands dam 2.5 miles north will inevitably create low or high waters depending on demand.

When the time came to detonate the dams and install the wave shaper, Columbus’s leadership was all in.

“What we do here today is as critical to the history of Columbus as when the first stone was laid on the first mill of these shores,” Teresa Tomlinson, former Columbus Mayor said in September 2011. The first serious construction began and concrete steps were poured.

The section of the Chattahoochee River near Columbus went from two large, lifeless, reservoirs to a beeping construction site from 2011-2013. Bulldozers carrying steel would ride over where feet of water once stood idle for centuries.

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