Thursday, September 30, 2004

Greene St.

Greene St. is parallel to Broad St., just a bit south, and a street or two north of Telfair St. It's a pretty busy thoroughfare and there's plenty of lawyer's offices and businesses to the west. However, as you go east, business slacks off, although there are nice homes along most of Greene St.

By the time you get to the end of Greene St., where it "T's" into East Boundary Rd., there's not much going on. Random historical fact: The de Laigle House, on the western side of Greene St., is where the final person to be killed in a duel in GA died. Charles Tilly died a day after defending the honor of the young Mary de Laigle at Sand Bar Ferry, right off the river on the SC border. Apparently Sand Bar Ferry was a major duelling ground, but this one, just before Christmas in 1875, was the last. Charles Tilly is said to haunt the house, which looks like the Addam's Family home.

I always wanted to make it into this old night club, but the concrete was a bit of an impediment. Once, while staying in the cheapest motel in Savannah (The Thunderbird, right across from the Greyhound Station, natch), I got into a conversation with the desk clerk, who had briefly lived in Augusta during the 1950's. He told me about seeing Dinah Washington perform at a club and then dancing with her, as she came out front to mingle with the patrons. That dance had really made his night. I've never figured out exactly where the club was, but it seems it might have been near where the post office is now, somewhere off of 8th or 9th St.

Back on the east end of Greene St. is this Widow's Home. It's empty, but the inside was refurbished at some point with plush carpets and new paint. I don't know if anyone will ever use it again, but it's not really worth exploring. The outside looks good though. Just the ambience for widow's, I guess.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral, right where Greene St. exits onto the John Calhoun Parkway, opened in 1900 and held its last mass in 1971. After that it quickly fell into disrepair. Luckily, it was restored and is now a cultural center. So, no, it's not abandoned, but for a small donation you can wander around in the middle of the day and pretend it is. There are some great historical photos of Augusta during floods where you can see water rising along the bottom of the church. The cathedral is the only recognizable feature still around from those old photos.

At the corner of Greene St. and 5th is this old laundromat with apartments above it. It's worth taking a closer look at this old building. So, we'll do just that next time.

Also, I realize this blog is getting pretty picture-heavy, which might make it load slow. I've reduced the number of posts on the main page to 5 and might go to 3. You can always go to the archives to see the old posts.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Swampland Pt. II

Okay, part two of Augusta's Phinizy Swamp. Right as you leave Lover's Lane and head into the swamp you come across a small old house on the corner. Actually, if it's summer you probably won't see it as it completely disappears into the vegetation. It takes some work to get into even in the best of circumstances since you have to cross a ditch that's sometimes full of water, snakes, bones, etc. But, once you get inside you're in what was probably a pretty cozy little farm pad. There's a brick fireplace and the walls are all painted this dark blue. This photo is of the view out the back.

A little farther down the dusty red road and you pass what I think is the finest of Phinzy's old structures. This old farmhouse has four or five nice big rooms, a couple brick fireplaces, front and back porches, and is wisely built on stilts to keep out the creepy crawlies and possibly the rising spring waters of the swamp itself. Up these steps and inside is the home of a family of bats, which is a little disarming if you're not expecting them.

I would've considered moving into the place myself, but there's a big hole in the living room and no doubt it's a little drafty in the winter. Also, there really are a lot of bugs in the swamp. Anybody that's ever walked through a cane stand (a tall grass which grows all throughout the swamp) has probably had chiggers, which leave little red, swollen bumps. My worst episode left me with about 50 bites and three sleepless nights. Afterwards, I found out that the best way to get rid of chiggers is simply to wipe yourself down with a towel after you've been in a potentially chigger-infested area. Apparently there's about a 1-2 hour window before they actually bite you. That was great to read as I was desperately trying not to scratch the things. Problem is, it feels REALLY good to scratch 'em. As an associate of mine said, scratching them is "equisite." I'm afraid it's true, and once you start you can't stop.

Just adjacent to the farmhouse is this massive barn. The swamp is fast reclaiming the land that isn't being actively bulldozed and it's hard to imagine someone trying to farm, let alone graze cows or ride horses, anywhere around this barn. Around the side, if I had a shot of it, you could see the massive trees that are slowly crushing the eves along the roof, a testament to how old the barn really is.

Anyone that's ever explored old places has probably had the wits scared out of them by birds flying around inside whatever building they happen to be in. I thought I'd pretty much gotten over that when a little, itsy-bitsy old pigeon up in the loft of the barn made me jump out of my skin. I dunno, I guess my mind pictured all sorts of nefarious-types hanging around up there, ready to pounce down on top of me. Yeah, the Phinizy remains creepy, even in broad daylight, which is just the way it should be.

Here's another barn, just off the main thoroughfare (read: the dusty dirt road) running through the swamp. A large white owl was perched inside and flew away as we approached the barn from the front. The front of the barn is your standard abandoned building wreckage. Toppled timbers, a smashed, collapsed corrugated steel roof, and plenty of rusted nails, one of which went through the bottom of my shoe but didn't appear to break the flesh . Ah, tetanus. See that cane grass in front? That's prime chigger territory. Did I mention that, for its size, the chigger is considered to have one of the most irritating bites around?

At the opposite end of the swamp, very near the Savannah River rapids, is this old bridge across Phinizy Creek. Probably the people that lived on the adjacent farms used this bridge to bring their livestock to and fro. I don't have any clue where it used to lead, other than the Savannah rapids. It's also pretty close to the airport, but I doubt the bridge was used as a shortcut to get the swamp denizens to their early morning commuter flights.

Not being from the South I didn't know what to expect when I moved there. At first I spent some time in Athens, GA, which, regardless of (or because of) its supposed rock and roll pedigree, drove me crazy. Plus, most of the south has just as many Wal-Marts, McDonald's, and Shell Stations as anywhere else in the country. However, it was while walking these dusty back roads in Augusta in the blazing heat and humidity, sweat-drenched, with not a wisp of wind blowing and only the buzzing of insects to break the stillness, that I started to get a hint of what made the south the south. It was then that I thought I could understand what Blind Willie McTell, born just 25 minutes up Interstate 20 near Thomson, GA, was singing about when he played "Painful Blues", "Death Cell Blues", and "Lord Send Me An Angel." It's tough. But here is where the heart and soul of the south is, I'd say, you just have to look a little harder now. Hard living? Certainly. Slavery and servitude? Without a doubt. But there is beauty and strength as well. And there's truth, both the ugly and the magnificent. Such truth is always worth searching out. Er, okay, then. Anyway, next time, back into town for, as Blind Willie sang, some Rough Alley Blues.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Swampland Pt. I

I like swamps. I like them a lot. In fact, I've even parlayed my enjoyment of swamps into a career of sorts for the last eight years, if you include a stint in grad school. Augusta has a nice swamp in the form of the Phinizy. I'm not positive, but I have to assume the Phinizy is named after John Phinizy, the first Italian-American mayor of an American city. He became mayor of Augusta way back in 1837. I suppose it's possible the swamp was named after other Phinizy's, like Jacob (John's son, I believe), who had something to do with the railroad. But as there appears to be literally no information anywhere about this, I'll go with my story.

The Phinizy is pretty chopped-up and messed-with, but at its best its a fairly nice bald cypress swamp. Y'know, the tree with the swelling at the bottom of the trunk and the "knees", which are used to obtain oxygen during high water, around the base (that's Taxodium distichum L. if you're into scientific nomenclature). The most intact remnant is partitioned off as the Phinizy Swamp Nature Center and has trails, an interpretive center, and nature programs. You can find more information about the nature center HERE. But there is a large area of swamp outside the nature center. This un-nature center region is a noted body dump, which makes sense given its Italian namesake. Hey, I'm kidding. Too much Sopranos. Anyhow, I've heard that pilots in small aircraft report any activity they see in the swamp to the police as a matter of course. Makes you want to go, eh?

The easiest way to get into the outer reaches of the swamp is via Lover's Lane. Yeah, no kidding. This is a photo of the area around Lover's Lane and is technically Columbia Nitrogen Rd. But Lover's Lane leads right off of it and past a swell NutraSweet factory. As you can see, it's a nice area and lives right up to its name. Bring your little honey down to Lover's Lane and park for a romantic evening by a swamp filled with psychopaths on one side and the aromatic smell of artifical sweeteners on the other. Why not throw on some mood music, maybe Einsturzende Neubauten's "Drawings of Patient O.T.", just to ensure you seal the deal? Ironically enough, Lover's Lane pretty much dead ends and a rutted dirt road leads into the swamp.

The periphery of the swamp (and maybe a large part of the swamp itself) is/was farmland. Some of the land looks to be abandoned and chunks have been reclaimed by mother nature. On a few tracts just beyond the swamp you might see a lonely tractor tooling around and, cutting through one section, there is what appears to be serious road construction. I don't know what the plans are or if the construction will be the death knell of a large part of the swamp, but I can tell you that the work isn't moving very fast.

There are certainly some interesting things to be found in the swamp. Slowly sinking into the mud just off a dirt road is a safe with the door blown off. One day I also came across a whole bunch off weird looking computer equipment that someone had tossed into the water. As if that isn't enough, the ghosts of dead televisions haunt the hollows and swales in packs. However, the best parts of the swamp by far are the old farmhouses and structures that remain. But, that's going to have to wait until next time, when I post Pt. II of Swampland.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Meathouse

I'm starting to feel that this blog needs a bit more grit. Like expecting James Ellroy and getting Nancy Drew. I don't want to make it seem like all there is to do in Augusta is stroll pleasantly along deserted streets looking at abandoned buildings. Oh no. You can go in these abandoned buildings. Take this majestic wreck. Looks inviting, eh? Irresistible (har har). And they thoughtfully left the door open.

Located on the corner of James Brown Blvd. and Walker St., this building appears to have been a freezer facility, possibly used to store meat. Once we went through the door and up a short set of steps we waited 20 minutes for our eyes to adjust to the total darkness. After that, the scene above is the first thing we saw. The rail along the ceiling has some clamps in it and I assume that slabs of frozen meat were hung on these and then pulled in or out of the giant freezers marked "No Exit".

Immediately to the left is a large storage area and more freezers. This is right behind the truck doors seen on the left of the photo of the front. So, obviously, hunks of frozen whatever where loaded onto trucks here. People had been living in this room (or at least hanging out), but nobody was here on this visit, which is the way you want it.

Up on the second floor it became clear that this hulk had caught on fire at some point. We didn't know from below, but the torched timbers were a dead giveaway upstairs.

Incidentally, the land this building sits on is one proposed location of Augusta's new municipal center/courthouse. Right now there are some hang-ups. Chief among them is some type of skirmish about toxic soil. I guess the owner refuses to pay for tests, even though it's his responsibility. Um, it would seem to ME that the "owner" probably shouldn't be expected to be responsible for much of anything. Then again, the current municipal center is just around the corner and down a few streets, so why go to all the trouble of moving? Yeah, this broken and burnt building isn't much to look at and I'm sure it's not going to be "refurbished" anytime soon, but, I dunno, it's got some personality. Or maybe I'm crazy.

Since there wasn't much on the second floor, being burnt to a crisp and all, we headed up another set of stairs that brought us to the roof, which provided a nice view of the city. There was some drug paraphernalia lying around, so I suppose someone else thought the view was good as well. There were also nice skylights, picture above. Just because you're loading slabs of meat doesn't mean you shouldn't have a little natural light in your work environment. Yeah, I suppose they are mainly for ventilation...

There was also an elaborate refrigeration system on the roof, with pipes and hoses going all over the place and down into the building. I felt compelled to take this arty photo of a piece of it, but beyond this it extended all along one side of the building.

As you can see from the photo below, the building isn't much to look at from the back. But note the little entrance cut into the bottom of the wall by the door. This really seems like a lot of work to go through to enter a building that has no door. On the other hand, I suppose it might have been there for entry before the thing caught on fire.

I'm going to post some more photos from various urban explorations. But, right off (and despite my opening paragraph), I want to say that I DON'T advocate this sort of behavior. These buildings are dangerous, with rotted (or burnt) floors, broken glass, exposed nails, hanging sheet metal, etc. Also, you run into people on either extreme of the law in these situations and both are bad. If it's in your blood, you can't help yourself. I entered my first abandoned building (a bar) when I was about 10. A year later the police caught me trying to get into an abandoned liquor store (the alcohol connection is a coincidence, I assure you). So, I apparently have a clinical condition. I don't claim that it's a healthy thing to do and I would advise that YOU don't try it yourself. Instead, check out pictures taken by the lunatics that apparently have no choice. In addition to the aforementioned DETROITBLOG, I recommend ABANDONED PLACES, MODERN RUINS, STAHLART, and there's many others. These sites are all very impressive and I hope the folks I've linked to don't mind me providing links to their pages.

Hey, that's three posts in three days. I'm making up for lost time. Until next time...

2013 UPDATE: During my return to the Central Savannah River Area in 2012 for the Augusta Photography Festival I was told that this facility was owned by Swift Meats, makers of Swift Premium Brown 'N Serve. Also, I learned that the fire that gutted the building was started by a group of homeless people that were tying to stay warm one night. One man was killed in the blaze.

Nothing remains of this building now. A manicured strip of grass and the northern end of the parking lot of the new Augusta Richmond County Judicial Center give no indication that this place ever existed.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Sunny Side of the Street

Recently Broad Street, the main downtown thoroughfare in Augusta, has undergone some revitilization. There are nice eateries, craft stores, decent bars, loft apartments, and a weekly downtown celebration the first Friday of every month. But this growth has been restricted to the western portion of the street. To the east Broad St. is populated by strip clubs and empty storefronts. Although this is the locale of the haunted pillar, the only remnant of the lower market, formerly Augusta's main business district.

In 1829 a visiting preacher was said to have been mocked and scorned by Augusta's citizens. He swore a curse on the city, predicting that only one pillar of its market would stand and, as if that wasn't enough, even the pillar would be cursed. On February 8, 1878 a cyclone destroyed the entirety of the lower market and all that remained was one pillar, which was moved to its present location at Broad and 5th shortly afterwards. That's almost fifty years after the original curse, so either the preacher was patient or believed that revenge is a dish best served cold. Be that as it may, people that have touched the pillar are reported to have been variously struck by lightning, felled by heartattacks, and killed in car crashes within minutes. For some reason the pillar bears no mark or plaque to attract attention to it, perhaps to prevent curious Augustans from flocking to it, thus costing the city more citizens and further diminishing the tax base.

Anyway, if you step one street to the south of Broad you're on Ellis, a virtual no-man's land. Since I really can't resist a no-man's-land I've spent considerable time wandering this area. Aside from the occasional band practicing at the Capri Cinema, an old porno theater that now features hardcore groups, it's pretty quiet back there. I imagine this parking lot serviced the huge department stores, such as the massive Woolworth's and White's that front onto Broad. White's has a sign intimating that it's going to be turned into condos soon. Too bad the sign looks to be about five years old.

Also in front of this lot is the Miller Theater (a great looking movie theater that I'll get to later) so maybe theatergoers parked here before seeing a film. In any case, it's been awhile since these timers have been used to stamp any tickets.

I liked walking around Ellis St. in the late evening when the sun was setting, lighting up the old buildings and giving the whole area a sort of disheveled calm. The city seemed sort of like a prize fighter that had been beaten to a pulp and was just now thinking about retirement with a sense of relief rather than regret. A few blocks south is Greene St., a fairly busy street, but other than that there's little happening in any direction as you head away from Broad St. You might see someone catching some sleep in a doorway or one of those stray dogs with a bit of string around its neck roaming the sidewalk, but no one heading to the Sky City Discount Center.

Lots of these old buildings have rickety fire escapes. I've never tried climbing up one since I've got pretty poor health insurance, but they always looked inviting. This one is just down an alley and monitored by video surveillance for some reason. Maybe the pigeons are plotting something.

This fire escape is behind the former J. B. White's Department store. Not shown is the neat skyway running across the street from White's a couple stories up. Apparently this is one of the only parts of the building to actually be fully restored as it was being prepared for condos. Interesting choice, since the skyway appears to go into another empty building. These days you don't see many buildings decorated with those little square tiles people used to put in their bathtubs, but all that blue and white along the bottom of the building is just that. They probably had sheets of the things to make installation easy, but I prefer to picture some guy sticking each one on by hand.

A little further south is Telfair Street, a fairly historic street featuring some museums and famous homes, and the largest gingko tree in Georgia. Hey, that's the second largest gingko tree in the United States. The tree is outside the "Old Government House," which is just what its name implies. In fact, George Washington visited the house in 1791 and is reported to have planted the tree. I dunno why he'd plant a gingko, but there you go. Naturally the house is haunted. Also, at the corner of Telfair and 13th is Woodrow Wlson's childhood home. Despite it's history, Telfair is pretty barren much of the time. I'm pretty sure Johnson hasn't sold any of his used cars recently.

I should mention that there's not much historical information on Augusta that's readily available without diggin' through dusty tomes. Some of the information I've provided is from Haunted Augusta and Local Legends by Sean Joiner. Mr. Joiner provides some interesting facts along with the ghost stories. If any city is haunted it would have to be Augusta and I might mine a bit more from the book as I go. You can buy it at the Augusta Border's, otherwise try that internet thing I've heard so much about.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Hangin' Downtown

I said I wasn't going to write about my comings and goings (and I won't), but sometimes they slow me down a bit. Thus the substantial lag in getting around to a second posting. But things should settle down for a stretch, so hopefully I'll get some things up.

Alright, back to Augusta, GA. It makes some sense to start downtown, where very few people are usually hangin'. Although it is better than TV, as the song goes. Anyhow, this post will concentrate on the handful of streets north of downtown, between the main drag, Broad St., and the mighty Savannah River.

At the turn of the century (the 20th, not the 21st) these streets were filled with dozens of warehouses moving goods (bricks, textiles, etc.) to and from boats on the Savannah River and trains that ran all over the city. Previously, during the Civil War, Augusta had been central to the South's military efforts, supplying more gunpowder and munitions to the Confederate army than any other city. The construction of the Augusta Canal later ensured that the city became a center of industry when it could have been forgotten as the agrarian way of life died a slow and painful death. Following years of tobacco and then cotton cultivation, both crops that strip the soil, farmers were being forced to abandon their land and the city's prospects might have been dim. But the canal provided access to and from the Savannah River, not to mention power, creating just the right environment for textile mills to spring up throughout the city and greasing the wheels of venture capitalism. I'll get into the canal and the mills of nearby Horse Creek Valley later.

There are still plenty of forgotten track segments lying around in bits and pieces in odd locations and if you walk behind the old warehouses near the river you can find shadows of the former grandeur of such commerce.

Some of the old buildings along the tracks don't have much left of them. The building above has a reasonably intact front that looks out on Broad St., yet if you step behind it not much remains. Other buildings are simply boarded up and abandoned. Whether these remnants survive for long remains to be seen. A few blocks away from Broad St., across Reynolds St., is the Riverwalk, a well-maintained brick walk along the river's levee that gets a fair amount of recreational use. So far, after a number of years, this rare example of civic utility in Augusta hasn't had any effect on the surrounding streets. In fact, recently Fort Discovery, a science museum along the Riverwalk, has been threatened with crippling budget cuts, indicating that these old brick relics just might be around awhile longer.

As I said, there's only a couple of streets between Broad St. and the river, a mixture of these old warehouses, office buildings (not interesting), and gaudy modern hotels (who cares?). Next time I'll cross Broad to the south and things will really get moving. The wasteland that is Ellis St., the abandoned school on Telfair St., the last Arte Moderne movie theater in GA (empty for 20 years), the infamous James Brown Blvd and more all await. Until then, happy wanderings.