Before railroads and highways, the Savannah River was an important commercial corridor. Local, state, and federal organizations worked to improve the river so large boats could navigate its waters. The first efforts to improve river navigation started in the 1850s. Workers cleared debris and sediment from the channels.
River traffic increased through the 1880s. Augusta shipped finished cotton goods around the world and passengers travelled to and from Savannah. In 1880, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began its first major navigational improvement project on the Savannah River below Augusta, Georgia. The goal was to maintain a low-water depth of five feet. Workers cleared sediment, added vegetation to curb bank erosion, and constructed low wing dams to prevent sandbars.
Their efforts improved the navigability of the river, but it was not enough. The water depth wasn’t consistent and sandbars constantly reformed. In the early 1900s, the Corps built dikes that were designed to control the river’s flow and stop sediment and sandbars from accumulating. Unfortunately, these dikes required significant maintenance. To try to improve the navigability, the Corps proposed a series of locks and dams in 1903, but Congress did not approve the funding.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Savannah River projects became less of a priority.