Investigations into

The Historic
Mill Dams on the Chattahoochee River

Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama

Research findings

What did we find when the dams were breached?

Before the breaching of the historic stone masonry dams of the Eagle and Phenix Mill on March 20, 2012 and City Mills a year later on March 11, 2013, Southern Research consulted with a team of divers from the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team (from LaFayette, Alabama) to take a look at what was behind the stone dams. We also worked with maritime archaeologists at SEARCH, Inc. to complete side scan sonar and yet another team at Landair Surveying Company of Roswell, Georgia for a complete digital scan of the stone dams. We felt it was important to document and know what was there before the breaching of the stone dams. This would help us develop a plan for the most effective way of recording what was found. Side scan sonar showed us what we expected – remains of wooden dams, but there were also other curious features lying beneath the water. We were excited to observe in person the breaching of the Eagle and Phenix stone dam. We watched and patiently waited for the water level to reach a low enough point so that we could get into the river bed and examine what the dive team and side scan sonar had previously indicated.

The most obvious thing that we observed behind the Eagle and Phenix stone dam was the 1869 wooden dam. The sturdy skeleton of this massive dam was quite impressive. It was necessary for the wooden dams to be removed to allow the river to flow properly but more importantly, to keep rafters safe. The wooden dams contained many iron spikes that held it together and those were removed as well. At the Eagle and Phenix dam site we also found remnants of the 1844 and 1856 wooden dams. At City Mills we observed what remained of a wooden dam, dating to 1871. A wood salvaging team from Old River Saw Mill based out of Prattville, Alabama was in charge of removing the wooden dams. This valuable wood would later be made into various unique pieces. You can learn more about how the wood was salvaged and what they are doing with it now at

Wood samples from the Eagle and Phenix dams.

Although the salvagers took most of the wood from the Eagle and Phenix dams, we reserved a few samples to be tested at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Southern Research staff member cutting wood samples from the Eagle and Phenix dams.

We wanted to see what information could be gathered from these very old longleaf pine logs. It turns out that some of the trees were “born,” or began growing, by the late 1600s to early 1700s. We believe the trees were locally harvested. In order to be used in the construction of the dams, the trees were planed and shaped into beams. Saw mills already existed in the area, so the beams would have also been prepared locally and fairly close to the construction site. Having the team at Appalachian State examine these wood samples helped us determine a more specific date for the wooden dams at the Eagle and Phenix site.

Scale model of mystery Feature 18.

We also observed behind the Eagle and Phenix dam, four primarily intact wooden features of unknown use. The local newspaper dubbed these features “pyramids” because of their shape. We decided to take an in depth look at one of these in order to try and determine their function. From the start we thought they most likely had something to do with dam construction, but exactly how they aided in building the dams, we have not yet determined. The features measure 14 feet tall and had moving parts at the top. The base was filled with stone rubble to anchor the structure to the river bed.

Mystery Feature 18, located upstream from the Eagle Phenix stone dam.

We dissected the feature by removing the rubble from one half of it so we could see more clearly how it was constructed. This would later aid in the building of a much smaller scale model. We continue to search for conclusive answers as to what role these four features played in the building of the Eagle and Phenix dams. Perhaps they helped to ferry supplies and workers across the river? What do you think?

Box feature located upstream from the Eagle and Phenix stone dam.

A curious rectangle shaped “box” feature was also observed early on by divers behind the Eagle and Phenix dam. Once we were able to examine this “box” up close, we were left with more questions than answers. This feature was bisected by a wooden partition and contained some stone rubble, as well as iron rods in one half extending vertically. A floor was also observed within the box. The box was quite large, measuring approximately 26 feet long by seven feet wide and four feet tall. Because the box had been in the water for upwards of 130 years, obtaining exact measurements was made slightly difficult due to some water erosion of the wood. We are not entirely sure of the function of this “box” feature.

Inside the wooden keg/bucket the remnants of lead paint can be seen.

Other interesting things we discovered in the river bed behind the Eagle and Phenix dam included wooden kegs/buckets, glass bottles, a pipe wrench, stoneware jugs, weapons, bricks, and of course plenty of trash. We recovered four partial wooden kegs, one of which was almost intact, only missing two staves.

Restored wooden keg/bucket recovered from the river bed close to the E&P dams.

The kegs were sent to the Florida Division of Historical Resources for proper preservation. The wood was allowed to dry slowly and treated to preserve it. The iron bands that were wrapped around the kegs to hold them together were also preserved. Two of the kegs held remains of their original lead paint and this was also kept and safely conserved. It is possible that these kegs came from the Variety Works Mill that was located in that vicinity and produced these types of wooden kegs/buckets. If these buckets were produced by the Variety Works Mill, they would pre-date 1854 when the mill burned. According to our research, Variety Works Mill is the only mill in the area that produced wooden buckets. The buckets were buried under silt in the riverbed, helping to preserve them.

Uncounted glass bottles and fragments were observed lying all over the river bed behind the Eagle and Phenix dams. These bottles included soda bottles from brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Chero-Cola, Nehi, and RC. Some of the Coca-Cola bottles were stamped with “Columbus, Ga”, indicating they were certainly bottled locally.

There were many other soda bottles that were not clearly labeled. There were also medicine, liquor, and milk bottles, cosmetic cream jars, as well as many more. Notice the small size of the blue bottle labeled “Vicks Drops”. This tiny bottle held drops that could be added to hot water and then inhaled to aid cold symptoms and dates to the early to mid 1900s.

A portion of an “S. Grabfelder & Co. Distillers Louisville, KY” bottle was also recovered. Samuel Grabfelder’s distillery was in business from 1880 until its closure in 1919 when prohibition led to its demise. During prohibition Grabfelder’s distillery was demolished but the site would eventually be home to another distillery known today as Jim Beam.

A “TRIMO” pipe wrench was recovered from the bed of the river at the Eagle and Phenix dam that would have been used by a pipe fitter in the early 1900s.

Research indicates this particular wrench was made by the Trimont Wrench Manufacturing Company located in Massachusetts. A patent for this particular model was obtained by the company in 1889 and was quite popular among pipe fitters at that time. The company closed in 1954 but many of their wrenches can still be found in use today. Although heavily rusted when discovered, once the TRIMO pipe wrench was cleaned of rust, its parts still function!

Two stoneware jugs were recovered, one being completely intact and dating to circa 1850-1890; the second is only missing its handle. The larger of the two is much older and was most likely coated with an Albany slip glaze, much of which has worn away after years spent in the river. The smaller jug is also made of stoneware, but is coated with a Bristol glaze and most likely dates to the early 1900s.

Both jugs had strap handles, the larger of which is still intact, and both would have had a stopper to keep its contents inside. Contents of these jugs could have been most any liquid, but typically they held cider or whiskey.

After more than 150 years of mills operating near the river, bricks were plentiful all over the river bed. Some bricks are stamped and can be traced to a manufacturer while countless others have no markings and were not linked to a specific company. Some of the names engraved on the bricks include Southern Clay Manufacturing Company, Copeland-Inglis, and Kaolin. The Southern Clay Manufacturing Company was located in Robbins, Tennessee and operated until 1937. The design we observed was used from 1902 until the plant’s closing in 1937. The Copeland-Inglis Shale Brick Company located in Birmingham, Alabama was in business from 1899 to 1920 and apparently shipped bricks throughout the southeast. The Kaolin stamped brick came all the way from the California Brick and Pottery Company, which was briefly in business from 1903-1909 near San Francisco. The Kaolin stamp was used beginning in 1905 in reference to the kaolin clay used to make it. This describes only a few of the bricks we found. These bricks were either used for structures or as street pavers, many of which were eventually replaced or covered with asphalt.

One thing is for sure, people throw a lot of trash in the river! We saw more “trash” than we could ever want to see again. This trash included any and everything people throw away such as dozens of fire extinguishers, bottles, used tires, boat parts, toys, tools, car parts, cans, fishing line, clothing, cell phones, and weapons.

Quite a few guns and some knives were recovered from just under the 13th and 14th Street Bridges. As one can imagine, these were probably thrown from the bridge presumably to never be seen again, that is until our team recovered them. All weapons were turned over to the Columbus Police Department. Most were heavily corroded and we have no knowledge regarding any information recovered from them.

Other miscellaneous items which we found include: two coins, a trumpet, horseshoes, and a ring with the name “Gloria” engraved on it. A bowl shaped item with a handle, made of copper, appears to be a type of crucible which would have been used for smelting metals such as lead.

A lot of excitement surrounded an acetylene tank that very much resembled a cannon to some onlookers. Standing on the river walk and looking down at the tank, it did look like a cannon lying in the silt; however, upon closer examination it was discovered to be an acetylene tank that was discarded in the river.

An acetylene tank that very much resembled a cannon to some onlookers.

A similar photo made headlines in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

People continuously asked us if we found any slot machines. It has long been told that some Phenix City gamblers were known to have tossed numerous slot machines from the 14th Street Bridge, however we did not find any, not a single slot machine or pieces of one were ever seen during our investigations. Perhaps that is one rumor that can be laid to rest, so to speak.

Behind the City Mills 1907 stone masonry dam we observed a portion of the 1871 wooden dam and small remnants of the 1828 and 1839 dams. A fairly large portion of the 1871 dam had been left intact by construction crews that breached the stone dam. The 1871 dam originally went across the Chattahoochee River. The 1828 dam was more ambiguous because it did not extend straight across the river when first constructed, but rather followed natural rock formations in the river bed. The footprint of the 1839 dam, which was chiseled into the bedrock on the east side of the river, is still visible today. The remaining wood from these dams was also salvaged by the team at Old River Saw Mills after being fully recorded by our archaeological team.

Southern Research archaeologists excavating around a wood crib feature at City Mills.

Other than the dams at City Mills we also investigated two wood and stone rubble crib features. With the help of an excavator and a crew wielding shovels, we dug as deep as five feet into the mud and silt to better examine the two boxes. At a certain point, the mud, silt, and water began to fill our excavation attempts and we were not able to get to the bottom of the two features. Even though we did not reach the bottom of the features, the excavations helped us have a better look at them. A platform type feature was uncovered in close proximity to the crib features. These three features may have been associated with the 1839 dam and mill operation. The structures were fully recorded and then covered in order to continue preparations for the whitewater rafting course. Today, grass and trees have been planted in this area.

Various artifacts recovered near City Mills, including bottles, marbles, a spoon, stoneware jug fragment, glass insulator, and a portion of a porcelain doll.

Other than the dams, we saw similar items at City Mills but not in the quantities that we saw at Eagle and Phenix. The primary reasons for the difference can be attributed to the fact that there was not as much exposed river bed at City Mills and two bridges exist near the Eagle and Phenix dams, whereas this is not the case for the City Mills area. As we observed first hand, a lot of trash gets tossed into the river, especially from bridges. Also, the City Mills area was not as developed as the area near the Eagle and Phenix. Nonetheless, we did see an assortment of bottles, toys, bricks, silverware, dish fragments, glass insulators, and of course, trash. A few items of particular interest include a porcelain doll body, a portion of a small jug, marbles, and bottles labeled, “Dr. Smith’s Worm Oil”, “New-Skin Co.”, “Nugrape Soda”, and “Cooper’s New Discovery”.

A stoneware miniature jug that was a way of advertising. Found near the City Mills dam.

Some may be familiar with the stoneware miniature jugs that were distributed as a way of advertising, much the way calendars and pens are given away today bearing the name of a business. These tiny jugs are typically an Albany and Bristol glazed stoneware. If advertising a liquid product, they would often times be filled with a sample, but other times they were given away empty. These jugs would have been available around 1860 to 1910. A fragment of one of these small jugs was recovered from behind the City Mills dam and is stamped with “Compliments of A. L. Smith”. According to a knowledgeable mini-jug enthusiast, this particular jug was likely manufactured in Paducah, Kentucky and dates to around 1905. It would have been given away containing a sample as an advertisement strategy. (communication with Bill Wrenn)

The bottle which contained Dr. Smith’s Worm Oil appears to date to the late 1800s to early 1900s. A preoccupation seems to have taken hold of people during that time with having intestinal parasites and this was likely one of the many treatments on the market at the time.

The Cooper Medicine Company in Dayton, Ohio produced a concoction called “Cooper’s New Discovery” which claimed to cure almost every ailment known to man. L. T. Cooper, who owned the company, was actually an advertiser, a job in which he excelled. Several advertisements can be found raving about Cooper’s New Discovery and the wonders it can do for the human body. One man even claimed it helped him rid his body of a 34 foot tapeworm! In 1916 a suit was filed against the company for making false claims regarding the medicinal values of its mixtures. Chemical analysis revealed it was actually little more than diluted alcohol flavored with sassafras oil. It’s no wonder the directions include taking a wine glass full at bedtime.

We thoroughly enjoyed investigating the known and unknown items behind both stone masonry dams. One thing to keep in mind is that the river constantly changes what lies beneath the water. Every day something new washes in and washes away as the water level constantly changes. Many things were discovered and most likely collected by various visitors before and after we were there to investigate. Each day brings something new and we were excited to have a glimpse into what lies at the bottom of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus.

Southern Research’s Dam Crew. L-R: Josh Patrick, Matt Wood, Dean Wood, Misty Dunn, Liz Williamson, Gretchen Eggiman, Kay Wood, Eric Sipes, and Susanne Newberry.

Sources, links and notes

    (this one says the blast should sound like 20 cannons…. well not quite!! We couldn’t even hear it from the bridge.)
  • Grabfelder bottle:
  • Vicks bottle:
  • Tremo wrench:;
  • Stoneware Jugs: American Stonewares: The Art & Craft of Utilitarian Potters. Georgeanna H. Greer. 1996. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Atglen, PA.
  • Bricks:
  • Cooper’s Bottle:
  • Small Jug Fragment “A.L. Smith”:
    Personal communication via email with Bill Wrenn (also referenced in above article)