Investigations into

The Historic
Mill Dams on the Chattahoochee River

Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama

Interpreting the past for the future

What is Industrial Archaeology?

Industrial Archaeology is the study of significant industrial sites, artifacts, structures, and technology. It also focuses on interpreting and preserving sites and information for future generations. Archaeologists look at the material evidence left behind by industry which can include buildings, machinery, artifacts, tools, documents, and most any other item used to produce, manufacture, or transport products in the past. This can include mills, dams, powerhouses, worker housing, ironworks, factories, warehouses, and other support structures. Other topics that are investigated by Industrial Archaeologists are mines, quarries, landscapes, canals, railways, roads, communities, bridges, tunnels, and public utilities such as water, sewers, electricity, and gas. Industrial Archaeology developed as a specialized field in the 1950s in Great Britain and eventually made its way to the United States. Archaeologists and Historians needed a way to record the industrial history of our nation before it disappeared. More and more structures related to past industry continue to be lost to fire, abandonment, and demolition. Today legislation has been put into place to help protect many of our historic places.

The powerhouse at Eagle and Phenix Dam.

One of the earliest federal preservation programs in the United States arrived in 1933 with the formation of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) program. This program aims at documenting our country’s architectural history. The National Register of Historic Places was formed by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and has been an asset to recording and preserving historic structures. Another program came about in 1969 with the development of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), which targets historic structures and sites that are related to industry and engineering. In 1971 the Society for Industrial Archaeology was established and has been key to bringing awareness to recording and preserving the United States’ industrial history. During our documentation of Columbus’ historic dams, we were required to produce architectural HAER drawings.

The turbine inside the powerhouse at Eagle and Phenix Dam.

Archaeologists at Southern Research, HPC, Inc. used various techniques when examining, documenting, and interpreting the historic wooden dams in the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia. This included HAER documentation, numerous photographs, detailed maps, research, LiDAR scanning, side-scan sonar, dive teams, and visual examination. We employed Richard Anderson and Brian Grogan to assist with this process. Mr. Anderson has a long history of producing detailed HAER drawings and Mr. Grogan is skilled in the area of photographing historic sites and structures. These drawings and photographs will be on file at the Library of Congress for future generations to explore and research. These methods are just some of the ways archaeologists helped to preserve Columbus’ industrial history. Structures related to the dams are still in existence today. Several buildings still exist from the textile industry that provided the community with jobs by manufacturing products that supplied local, regional, and international businesses. Evidence of those mills can be seen in the Eagle and Phenix Mills and City Mills. Two powerhouses for the Eagle and Phenix Mills still stand and at City Mills, turbines can still be seen beneath the structure.

To help record the industrial history of Columbus, the team at Southern Research was able to locate historic dams that were built as early as 1828 at City Mills, and 1844 at Eagle and Phenix. The stone dams seen today are not necessarily representative of dams from the past. The older dams were wooden and not all of them extended across the river. Earlier mills would have used wing dams or weirs to capture water to power a water wheel.

Community leaders in Columbus, Georgia recognized the need for the city’s historical preservation early on and began the process long before either stone dam was breached. The detailed drawings, maps, and research will provide information for many generations. The Society for Industrial Archaeology, as previously mentioned, brings many professions together, such as archaeologists, architects, engineers, museum specialists, industrialists, historians, teachers, etc. to help in bringing awareness and preservation to our nation’s Industrial history. For more information about Industrial Archaeology and the sites currently being explored throughout the United States, please visit the Society for Industrial Archaeology.