Derek May walked out of the Augusta University office tower at 699 Broad St. one afternoon this spring and saw an incredible sight: nothing.
No people or traffic as far as the eye could see; downtown’s main thoroughfare, ordinarily bustling with activity, was eerily empty.
“I was the only person on the street – anywhere,” said May, president of Azalea Investments, the company that owns the AU building.
What the executive saw, of course, were the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, whose viral ebbs and flows have disrupted downtown commerce since mid-March.
The coronavirus is unlike any public health crisis Augusta, and the rest of America, has ever seen. But even as the local and national death toll continues to rise, most people realize – that much like other calamities through history – this, too, will pass.
In this edition of 1736, we are looking back at some of downtown’s most memorable disruptions, distractions and disasters.
Augusta has been flooded by the mighty Savannah River many times during its history – approximately 20 major inundations between the 1700s and early 1900s – but the flood of August 1908 was different.
It prompted city leaders to finally build a levee along the southern banks of the state’s largest river. Interestingly, the Army Corps of Engineers, who today still has jurisdiction over the levee, had recommended building its construction as early as the 1870s.
The flood of 1908 put more than 100 city blocks under water including all of the central business district.
An out-of-town salesman, Clarence Sedberry, made a stop in Augusta and described the famous flood in a letter to his wife in Fayetteville, N.C.
Sedberry was staying at the old Albion Hotel on the 700 block when the water flowed on to city streets. His letter details a nearly hour-by-hour account between Aug 26-28. The note was discovered by Sedberry’s great-granddaughter in the late 1980s, who shared it with The Augusta Chronicle.
“A store full of lime has just exploded,” he detailed at 12:30 p.m. on the 26th. “Barrels of lime go floating by being slapped by the water as they float. Lots of water everywhere. Boats come into the lobby of the hotel.
Water continues to rise. It’s now up two steps in the hotel. A grand sight but terrible. No one knows where it will end.”
Sedberry was clearly worried. At 2 p.m. the same day: “Everything wild. I have to be brief in what I say, if I ever get out and at home I will tell you all about it.”
By the evening, fires burned throughout the city, which Sedberry could see from the roof of the six-story hotel.
“Five large fires are now raging.” he wrote. “No lights in the hotel except candles and with so many drinking, I am afraid of trouble.” He had reason to worry: The flood claimed 25 lives and $1,500,000 in property damage.
The waters began to recede the following day and the salesman made it home safely. “Wish I could write it all as I see (it),” he wrote. “It’s a sight and an experience of a lifetime.”
One of the last great floods occurred in 1936, but such events largely disappeared after Congress authorized the construction of Clarks Hill Dam 21 miles upstream from Augusta (the structure was renamed the J. Strom Thurmond Dam in 1987).
This disaster had nothing to do with the river; it was Augusta’s aging stormwater drainage system that was overwhelmed by 8.5 inches of rain over 12 hours on Oct. 11-12, 1990.
Flash floods killed four and forced the evacuations of hundreds more people. The downpour was the result of a convergence of Hurricane Lili and Tropical Storms Marco – as well as the dying remnants of Tropical Storm Klaus – over the Augusta area, causing an estimated $150 million in property damage.
The flooding of Rae’s Creek wreaked havoc on the Amen Corner section of the Augusta National Golf Club, destroying the entire 11th green and the members’ tee at the 13th hole. The green and the front bunker at the 12th hole also was damaged.
The Augusta National rebuilt the 11th green to the original dimensions but changed the contours and made it two feet higher. It also widened Rae’s Creek and installed a dam for water control that is disguised by a wooden structure.
Outside the club, taxpayers sank more than $14 million into flood-control projects along Rae’s Creek and its tributaries.
Victims of the 1990 deluge included an 80-year-man who was swept away by swift-moving water as he and his wife struggled to get out their car at a flooded railroad crossing. Three others drowned in Jefferson County soutwest of Augusta.
“We got so much rain, so fast,” Pam Smith, then-director of the Richmond County Emergency Management Agency, said. “We’ve never had anything like this.”
Emory Farmer was shucking corn in her Harrisburg home on July 30, 1958.
The popular TV game show” Beat the Clock” had just ended. Then she heard the roar of an explosion and felt its shockwave. Her door flew open, pictures fell from their hangars, an one of her walls had cracked.
The sound, she said, “was like the whole world had blown up.”
The driver of a propane truck, J.L. Allen, parked next to the The John P. King Manufacturing Co. textile mill and noticed a leak under the truck as he was unfolding a hose. Unable to stop it, Allen ran to nearby homes alerting residents to turn off their pilot lights and evacuate the area.
The explosion destroyed six duplex homes, injured more than a dozen people, left 41 homeless and killed one man – Walter Redd, a 30-year-old Korean War veteran who succumbed to third-degree burns while rescuing his four children
Windows at King Mill shook but didn’t break. Children playing in the nearby Chaffee Park pool said they saw a fireball and felt water slosh over the side as if the pool were a tilted bowl. Some people thought the commotion was a plane crash.
Officials said the explosion could have been much more deadly if the neighborhood residents hadn’t spread the word more quickly to evacuate.
“It demonstrated…that emergency forces in Augusta can be quickly mobilized when disaster strikes,” The Augusta Chronicle editorialized. “Praise goes also to the individuals who showed great courage and heroism in risking their lives by relaying the alarm, by herding children out of danger and by participating in the rescue work.”
One of the most devastating earthquakes in American history shook the eastern United States on Aug. 31, 1886.
Most of the damage was centered around the Charleston, S.C., where more than five-dozen people were killed and millions of dollars in inflation-adjusted dollars occurred.
In Augusta, people ran outside because it seemed safer than being indoors, where plaster ceilings were being shaken loose, chimneys were collapsing and windows were breaking.
People fled into the street, The Chronicle reported, “gesticulating excitedly and wondering whether their time had come or not.”
Church bells rang all over town from the jostling, which some accounts say came in waves of about 13 aftershocks.
Joseph R. Lamar, lawyer, judge, state legislator, and a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, reportedly escaped a room just before the entire ceiling collapsed.
“Walls swayed, ground trembled,” read headlines in The Chronicle. “Second shock after people flocked into streets.”
At St. James Methodist Church on Greene Street, workmen had been busy for months erecting a new facade, belfry and sanctuary. The contractor’s crew reportedly went back to the construction site to brace the walls and board up the windows to prevent damage. It apparently worked, because the structure still stands today.
Most metro area residents have heard of the Great Fire of 1916, which burned many businesses in downtown and homes in the Olde Town neighborhood.
But very few know about an equally devastating fire in 1829.
That blaze, on April 3, destroyed parts of downtown and nearly 850 homes. Augusta was much smaller then, so the damage had an even greater impact on the pre-industrial revolution town. The aftermath was severe enough that city leaders passed an ordinance requiring buildings in certain areas be made of brick instead of wood.
Another fire in 1858 resulted in the city getting a 360-degree view of the marble obelisk in front of the Municipal Building on Greene Street. The 172-year-old monument, which marks the burial place of two of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence – George Walton and Lyman Hall.
Monument Street, the north-south thoroughfare cut in the middle of the 500 block, was not the result of forward-thinking city planners – it was the result of a fire that burned down buildings blocking its view.
Everyone got so used to seeing the monument from Broad Street that the structures were never rebuilt.
And 1921 was a banner year for fires – five major buildings were destroyed, including the Bon Air Hotel (which was rebuilt); the Albion Hotel (replaced by Richmond Hotel two years later); The Augusta Chronicle (which moved into the Augusta Herald building); and the Harrison and Johnson buildings (both of which were gutted and rebuilt).
Augusta’s first serious epidemic showed up in 1839 – yellow fever. It afflicted about half the town’s residents, killing 240 of them, including one of the founders of the Medical College of Georgia, Dr. Milton Antony, who contracted the disease while tending to the sick.
The disease came back in 1854. “The community, panic stricken, are fleeing in every direction to escape its ravages,” The Chronicle reported that year.
But the global epidemic regarded by some as the deadliest in recorded history – the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic – is believed to have been brought to Augusta by soldiers arriving in Augusta by train. Troop transports from Fort Riley, Kan., and Camp Grant, Ill., are said to have introduced the influenza strain to Augusta through Camp Hancock, the forerunner to Fort Gordon.
On Sept. 30, two soldiers were in the camp infirmary with flu-like symptoms. On Oct. 1, the number skyrocketed to 716. By the end of October, there were 3,000 hospitalized at the camp; 52 died in a single week, according to The Story of Augusta by Edward J. Cashin.
“The Board of Health quarantined the Camp and closed all schools, churches and theaters in Augusta until the worst was over in late November,” Cashin wrote.
Like many cities, Augusta was gripped by fear and its businesses suffered. Businessman Jack Wells, for example, opened his Wells Theater right before the pandemic hit. The venue folded and the property reopened the next year as the Imperial Theatre, which it remains today.
Some 30,000 Georgians died from the Spanish flu by the time the pandemic ended in 1919. Interestingly, military trains also spread the virus to Army camps near Atlanta, Macon, and Columbus before it spread into the cities themselves.