Investigations into

The Historic
Mill Dams on the Chattahoochee River

Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama

The Chattahoochee over time

Lifecycle of water and man

The various ways people have used and enjoyed the Chattahoochee River have certainly evolved over time. Once the British established Georgia as its 13th colony, it served as a buffer between South Carolina and the Spanish located in modern day Florida. Before Europeans began exploring and settling in Georgia, Native American Indians had made the area their home for thousands of years. Rivers were an essential part of life for the Indians and for Indians living near the Chattahoochee; it provided them with transportation and a constant supply of water, fish, and other foods.

Just as water is vital to all living things, the Chattahoochee River was vital to many Native American Indians. From the river they could obtain all the water they needed, use it for transportation, typically in dugout canoes, and capture fish by building weirs, spearing, or simply using a string and hook. A dugout canoe consists of a hollowed tree trunk that is large and strong enough to hold people and supplies. This method of transportation has been used for thousands of years. Spear points were made using local bone or stone of good quality that was worked and shaped into a sharp point, then attached to a sturdy wooden shaft. Fishing weirs were built using stone, wood, or nets to make a “V” shape in a stream that was large enough for water to pass through, but small enough to catch fish within it. Basically a weir is a method of trapping fish in a stream. Indians employed this method of procuring fish for many generations. In 1829 it was mentioned in the Columbus Enquirer that nine “fisheries” (weirs) in the Chattahoochee River within the city limits of Columbus were being publicly rented. It is possible that some or all of these fish traps were built by Native Americans. Land dwelling animals and water fowl also came to the river, providing wild game for the Indians to hunt and use for food, clothing, and tools. Other aquatic life that was used as a food source for the Indians included clams and turtles.

Once European explorers began traversing the area we now refer to as Georgia in the 1500s, they brought diseases with them which quickly spread through tribes, killing many Indians and taking a devastating toll on the native population. Never having had previous exposure to many of these diseases, Indians did not have the immunities already acquired by the Europeans. Viruses such as smallpox, measles, chickenpox, influenza, and bacterial infections including typhoid, typhus, scarlet fever, cholera, diphtheria, pertussis, and tuberculosis, as well as others, wiped out entire tribes. Although tremendous effort was later put forth in removing the Indians, spreading of these diseases could have been as easy as making contact, regardless of whether or not it was hostile or peaceful interactions. As European settlers moved into Georgia, Indians signed away their lands through various treaties.

The Treaty of Indian Springs was signed in 1825 and though it was later nullified and then ratified in 1826 by Congress, it resulted in the Creek Indians signing over their remaining lands in Georgia. William McIntosh, who was a leader of the Lower Creek Town of Coweta, claimed he represented the Creek Indians when he signed the Treaty of Indian Springs. McIntosh did this illegally and against the wishes of the majority of Indians and was sentenced to death by the Creek National Council. He was executed three months after signing the treaty. Nonetheless, removal of the Indians from the Southeast was set in motion. With the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, pressure to remove Indians was stronger than ever. A reserve was set aside in Indian Territory, in what is known today as Oklahoma, and southeastern Indians were forced to move there in the years following the signing of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The move they were forced to make to the new territory is what we now refer to as the Trail of Tears. The removal of the Indians had devastating consequences on every aspect of their way of life. Not only did their landscape change, but so did their culture, health, economics, access to food, and overall lifestyle.

As the Indians were pushed westward, leaders in the State of Georgia were steadily surveying lands opened up by the ratified 1826 Treaty of Indian Springs. In 1827 the state held its fifth Land Lottery as a way of dividing up tracts of land for settlers. The new land was divided into sections, districts, then 202 ½ acre lots. The lottery was held at the Georgia state capitol of Milledgeville and consisted of two drums, one containing names and one with land lot numbers. Some of those eligible to register for inclusion in the lottery were war veterans, orphans, and widows living in Georgia for at least three years prior to the drawing. When a person won a land lot, a fee of $18 had to be paid as well as continuous yearly taxes for the property or it would be sold on the courthouse steps, much like the modern day process. Some people accepted the land lot they won and settled upon it, others never claimed the land or simply sold it and moved elsewhere.

This newspaper ad for Eagle Manufacturing promised the highest wages around.

The new settlers along the Chattahoochee River quickly harnessed the river’s water power by constructing grist mills and saw mills. As the trees were harvested, saw mills were needed to provide the lumber necessary to construct houses and businesses. Because slavery was a common practice in the area at that time, slaves certainly did much of the back-breaking work of clearing the land and preparing it for agricultural use as well as constructing many of the mills and houses. Later, in the 1840s, the river’s water power was used for powering textile mills along its banks. The Chattahoochee’s tremendous water power potential made fortunes for many businessmen and provided much needed jobs. In 1852 the Eagle Manufacturing Company advertised in the Columbus Enquirer the need for 200 operatives, including men, women, and children. For their work they would receive proper wages for the time as well as “comfortable and convenient houses” free of rent.

City Mills, 2013, view from western bank of the river.

The first mills on the river, such as grist and saw mills, would have utilized water wheels. Water wheels have been used worldwide for thousands of years. The first mill at the City Mills location, built by Seaborn Jones in 1828, would have certainly used a water wheel for power. Water wheels could be wooden or metal with paddles or buckets attached to catch water and turn the wheel. Water wheels functioned differently depending on the water source. For very fast flowing water, an undershot wheel functioned well. The bottom of the wheel was simply submerged just enough for its paddles or buckets to catch the fast flowing water, making it turn. The turning of the wheel made the shafts and gears attached to the wheel’s center turn other gears that were attached to belts inside the mill that then ran the machinery. An overshot wheel functioned by having water delivered to the top of the wheel towards the front, while the backshot wheel worked similarly by having water delivered to the wheel’s top backside. A breast wheel delivered the water mid-way on the wheel instead of at the top. There were also horizontal water wheels called tub mills. In order to divert the water to the mill, the water would be dammed to form a mill pond or pool that fed a raceway or headrace which delivered water to the wheel; the spent water then exited the wheel via the tailrace and re-entered the original water source downstream. Water wheels were in use well into the 20th century and can still be seen functioning on many southern waterways, though today most are for scenic and not utilitarian purposes.

Turbine located at E&P Powerhouse

Turbines were in use at City Mills by 1880 and at the Eagle and Phenix Mills by 1899. The last turbines used by these mills can still be seen today. Turbines function by fast moving water hitting interior blades, causing them to spin a central shaft that turned gears that then transferred the power to shafts or pulleys. For hydropower, the turbine shaft turns a rotor in a generator that then creates a magnetic field that sweeps past a coil in the generator creating electrical energy. Turbines initially powered lights and later, mill equipment. They were preferable to water wheels because they were smaller and could spin faster, thus harness more power from the river. The turbines at City Mills generated surplus power which was then sold to the Columbus Railroad Company to operate the city’s street cars. The railroad company leased a section of land from City Mills and built a power plant in 1894-1895. That station was the first centrally generating hydroelectric power plant to operate in Columbus. In 1900, the future of hydroelectricity production at City Mills suffered a severe blow when the Columbus Power Company built a large hydroelectric facility at North Highlands, located a short distance upriver from City Mills. The Columbus Power Company used power from North Highlands instead of from City Mills. Today, turbines produce electricity in hydroelectric power plants at the North Highlands and Oliver Dams in Columbus.

Many technologies were used and constantly upgraded within the mills on the Chattahoochee. Mill equipment was upgraded when needed in order to keep up with the latest fabric demands and to keep the workers in a productive environment. At the Eagle and Phenix Mills, engineer John Hill oversaw construction of Mill #3 in 1880 and replaced the gas lights with electric lighting. This lighting was called the Brush arc light, a method that had been developed only a year previous by Charles Brush. His method allowed use of the arc light on a large scale and was useful to workers during early morning and late evening times. Mill numbers 1 and 2 eventually received the Brush arc lights as well. By 1913 the arc lights were replaced with incandescent lamps, lighting that was superior to the previous arc lights.

John Hill was also responsible for developing and installing in Mill #3 an automatic fire sprinkler and fire alarm system which he developed. Hill oversaw the installation of the sprinkler and fire alarm systems in at least three other mills in the Southeast. He and a partner began the Neracher-Hill Automatic Sprinkler Company which was eventually sold to Grinnell, a company still in business today. Hill was especially cautious regarding fire because his father’s uninsured mill in Ohio had been lost to fire years earlier. Another prominent Columbus businessman, Josephus Echols, made many improvements to machinery used in the early Columbus mills including steam engine air pumps, steam boiler water indicators, stone drilling machines, and many more. The technological advancements offered by Hill and Echols had positive impacts on the industry as a whole. Many of these inventions and improvements were used in mills all over the country.

Another invention that was paramount to the growth of the cotton textile industry was the cotton gin (engine) in 1794. Eli Whitney developed this machine after he moved to Georgia to work as a tutor for Catherine Greene, the widow of the Revolutionary War hero, Nathanael Greene. The Greene plantation, called Mulberry Grove, was near Savannah, Georgia. Whitney’s cotton gin was operated by cranking a rotating cylinder of wire teeth. As cotton was pulled through small grates, the seeds were separated from the fibers of the cotton. Before the cotton gin, it took a person by hand one day to remove seeds from one pound of cotton. After the invention, a person could use the machine and remove seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in one day. The efficiency meant a greater profit and this led to an increased demand for land and clearing it to grow cotton. This desire for more land to grow cotton hastened the removal of the Indians. Another negative affect was that with more land in cotton production, farmers needed more slaves to plant, grow and pick the cotton. By 1850 the South provided three-fifths of the United States’ exports, most of it in cotton, and the United States was producing three-fourths of the world’s supply of cotton. Cotton provided the textile mills in Columbus with the material they needed to produce fabrics that were then sold to stores and then to women to make clothing for their families or to clothing manufacturers. In later times clothing began to be produced by factories as well, and could be bought ready-made.

Also key to the growth of the textile mills in Columbus, Georgia was improved transportation. Overland travel was lacking and the roads that existed were rough and hazardous. Because the Chattahoochee River was navigable to Columbus, boats could travel the river from Columbus to the Gulf of Mexico and to other ports in the eastern United States as well as ports all over the world. Steamboats were able to navigate to Columbus with their decks loaded with products ready to be sold in Columbus stores and shipped by wagon to surrounding towns in Georgia and Alabama. The empty boats could be loaded with finished textile items and raw cotton to be shipped down river and eventually to textile mills in New England and England. In 1829 the Columbus Enquirer mentioned that three steamboats had arrived in Columbus that year. When the steamboat Virginia left for New Orleans in December, it was loaded with 400 bales of cotton. Even though steamboats provided a method of shipping finished products and raw materials, the uncertainty of water levels in the Chattahoochee River was a constant problem. During droughts there was not enough water for the steamboats to navigate the river. Conversely, if there was flooding, the steamboat could suffer damage and sink, taking valuable cargo with it. Boiler explosions and fire were also common hazards. In 1881 John Hill noted that of the 149 boats travelling on the Chattahoochee between 1828 and 1874 over half had met unfavorable endings with 48 having sunk, 9 blown up, 12 burned and seven succumbed to storms.

An alternative to the uncertainty of riverboat shipping was the railroad. Building a railroad was expensive and it took several years for Columbus to get onboard. The Muscogee Railroad Company was chartered in 1845. In 1847 the city of Columbus bought $150,000 of stock and the line was completed to Butler, Georgia. The line was supposed to go to Fort Valley and once there it could join up with a line built by the Southwestern Company. The Southwestern Company already had a line from Fort Valley to Macon. Since the Muscogee Railroad Company could only afford to lay the tracks to Butler, the Southwestern Company took it upon themselves to finish the line from Fort Valley to Butler. The final section of track was completed in June, 1853. Columbus was now connected by railroad to Macon and Savannah. Businesses in Columbus no longer had to rely upon steamboats to transport products in and out of the city. Columbus businesses could ship products by railroad to Savannah and out into the worldwide market more reliably.

Another railroad was the Girard Railroad Company which was chartered in 1845 with intentions to construct tracks from Dr. Stephen M. Ingersoll’s mill in Girard, Alabama (now Phenix City) towards Crawford, Alabama. Dr. Ingersoll was one of the charter members of the Girard Railroad Company which became the Mobile and Girard Railroad in 1854. By the time the Civil War was underway, construction on the line had been completed to Union Springs, Alabama. An 1872 bird’s eye view of Columbus shows the Mobile and Girard line extending into Columbus via a bridge crossing the river just below the Dillingham Street Bridge. In Columbus, the Mobile and Girard Railroad line connected with the Western Railroad and Southwestern Railroad lines at a rail yard located at what was then the outskirts of town. Construction of the Mobile and Girard line was halted during the war, but by 1886 rails had made it to Troy, Alabama. One of the chief shipments for the Mobile and Girard Railroad at that time was cotton. John H. Howard served as President of the company while his son, John H. Howard, Jr. served as Chief Engineer and Superintendent. John H. Howard had also been instrumental in securing tracks in Columbus for the Muscogee Railroad Company. By 1895 the Central of Georgia Railway Company had absorbed the Mobile and Girard Railroad Company, which had by that time completed tracks between Columbus and Seawright, Alabama. Eventually the line was extended to Andalusia, Alabama. The presence of the railroad drastically changed more than the landscape. It led to a much more efficient way to transport goods, especially cotton, in the 19th century. This led to more profits for businessmen and was also a more timely and reliable means of passenger travel.

A newspaper ad for Eagle Manufacturing – looking to hire men, women, and children.

The inventions and upgrades in technology mentioned here are just a few of the methods used to improve business practices along the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia. Technologies such as the lighting, sprinkler and fire alarm, improved the working environment while advancements in transportation catapulted Columbus mills to the forefront of exporting textile goods across the country and eventually throughout the world. Some of these advancements were made by local businessmen while others certainly happened due to their influence. For example, many of the major businessmen in the area such as Dr. Stephen M. Ingersoll, Seaborn Jones and John H. Howard, were instrumental in getting the city of Columbus connected to other major cities and ports via railroad. Each of these advancements in technology further boosted productivity and sales of the textiles manufactured in Columbus.

Mill houses for the Eagle and Phenix workers can be seen on the western side of the Chattahoochee River in this 1886 map of Columbus.

Textile mills offered much needed jobs and income to families during the mid and late 19th century, especially those struggling to recover after the Civil War (1861-1865). Entire families, including children as young as 10 years of age, earned money for the household in mills. William H. Young purchased land in modern day Phenix City, Alabama from Dr. Ingersoll and created mill villages for his workers. Browneville, built 1862-1863 and named for an Eagle Manufacturing employee, was an example of one of the thriving mill villages owned by the textile giant. In 1879 the Columbus Daily Enquirer featured a history of Browneville, stating that it boasted good schools, lodges, churches, stores, and more. The company also offered savings accounts for their operatives. Prior to the construction of Browneville, housing for mill operatives consisted of at least five boarding houses in Columbus and 40 mill houses on the Alabama side of the river.

Because it was producing goods for the Confederacy, the Eagle Mill was burned during the Civil War. Afterwards it was rebuilt and named The Eagle and Phenix Manufacturing Company. Villages were built to house mill workers and some mill owners began to provide schools, entertainment, and churches. Entertainment throughout the latter half of the 1800s included a yearly picnic hosted for mill workers where the Eagle and Phenix Brass Band played for the crowd. These picnics were a very big deal at the time. The tactics of offering housing, savings, schools, churches, etc. were seen by business leaders as a way to keep families committed to working for the mills, but also offered some stability for those families. However, the work hours were long, the job monotonous, noisy and dangerous and mill owners held tight control over the mill workers’ lives. In 1880, Eagle and Phenix employed 213 children, 555 men, and 917 women. During the early 20th century workers began to become more organized and sought increases in pay. Mills in the south came under fire for using child labor, often in deplorable working conditions. Workers began to strike in some cities. In 1896 Eagle and Phenix Mill workers went on strike in protest of reduced wages. The strike lasted about a month and did not result in the employees acquiring the wages they desired.

During the mid to late twentieth century textile production began to be moved to other countries such as India, Mexico, and China where labor was cheaper. Textile mills were bought up by larger corporations and the trend to move the operations out of the United States continued in the south. The twentieth century saw many changes in management for the Eagle and Phenix; however, it continued to manufacture fabrics well into the 1970s.

Corn meal bag from City Mills, date unknown.

City Mills, which was geared towards the food industry, was grinding corn into meal and wheat into flour, and eventually producing animal feed. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, operations at City Mills were expanded with the construction of a new flour mill, additional and more powerful turbines, a new sturdy concrete and stone dam, as well as a new grain elevator, office, and warehouse. Although it struggled to stay in business during the later years of operation, it produced feed until the late 1980s when it finally closed for good. Some structures and equipment remain on the site, but unfortunately the corn mill, constructed by former slave, Horace King (1807-1885), was torn down in 2005. The corn mill was built by King in 1869 after the original mill burned in 1865 and was one of the few remaining structures built by the famed bridge builder. King, freed from slavery in 1846, is most noted for building bridges in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, but also oversaw construction of houses, courthouses, factories, and warehouses.

After the closure of the textile mills along the Chattahoochee, some of the mills and houses were razed and replaced by modern office buildings, some were lost to fire, and a few such as the Eagle and Phenix mill buildings found another purpose. Today the remaining Eagle and Phenix mill structures have been converted into condominiums, apartments, and commercial spaces. Restaurants and family related activities are descending upon the area as well. The City Mills structures stand vacant but there are hopes for it to be restored and occupied by some business venture in the future.

Today the Chattahoochee River in the Columbus area is used for recreation as a whitewater rafting course: canoeing, fishing, and a zip line are typical activities.

Sources, links and notes

Links to: Georgia or Alabama Encyclopedia about William McIntosh, 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs, Trail of Tears, 1830 Indian Removal Act, Georgia Land Lottery, Nathanael Greene, White Water Express (
  • Columbus Enquirer, Dec. 2, 1851 -- page 1 (The Eagle Manufacturing Comp’y wants 200 operatives)
  • Columbus Enquirer, Jan. 3, 1854 -- page 1 (“Factory Hands Wanted!”)
  • Columbus Enquirer, October 28, 1851, page 3
  • Columbus Enquirer, April 20, 1852, page 4
  • Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, August 9, 1881, p. 4
  • Columbus Sunday Enquirer, November 3, 1878, page 3
  • Columbus Sunday Enquirer, February 8, 1880, page 3
  • Daily Columbus Enquirer, May 14, 1873, page 2
  • Columbus Daily Enquirer, 1879
  • Cline, Wayne 1997 Alabama Railroad. The University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa and London.
  • Fretwell, Mark E. 1980 This so Remote Frontier: The Chattahoochee Country of Alabama and Georgia. Historic Chattahoochee Commission. Rose Printing Co. Tallahassee.
  • Martin, John H. Columbus, Georgia, From its Selection as a Trading Town in 1827 to its Partial Destruction by Wilson’s Raid in 1865.
  • French, Jr., Thomas L. and John S. Lupold 2004 Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King. The University of Georgia Press, Athens and London.