Most people associate August with golf. Every year Augusta plays host to one of the top men’s professional golf championships called quite simply “The Masters.” But, that is not why we went to Augusta. Nope, I found two museums that sounded quite interesting. When I mentioned to Betsy there was a “Signal Corps Museum” and “Canal Museum” her eyes rolled around twice. Yep, I managed to find two completely obscure museums in a town that had no mentionable burger joint in our Hamburger America bible! That was added disappointment and causing another roll of the eyes.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum, which is located on Fort Gordon military installation and pays tribute to the history and accomplishments of the Signal Corps. The birth of the Signal Corps came about when Albert J. Meyer devised a simple, but genius, method of using visual signal flags and a torch to communicate on the battlefield. The Army embraced the system which became known as “Wig-Wag” and Myer was appointed to the rank of Major and chief signal officer to organize a corps of soldiers trained in signaling. The Army Signal Corps was established by Congress in June 1860, as the first American military organization dedicated solely to communications. Today, Fort Gordon is home to the regiment.
The exhibits trace the development of the Signal Corps from its beginning in 1860 through the present and the evolution of the regiment is fascinating. Communication on the battlefield is critical and the evolution of the Signal Corp’s technological developments is echoed in our everyday lives. Early on it was determined that communicating weather was important not just on the battlefield but to mariners at sea and so the responsibility fell on the Signal Corps (which eventually was transferred to the Dept. of Agriculture) and evolved into the National Weather Service.
The advancement of the Signal Corps kept pace with changing technology and they moved into the realm of aerial communication. Balloons were used to transmit information but when the Wright brothers took flight, the Signal Corps took notice. They bought an airplane from the Wright brothers in 1909 and took to the skies which drastically advanced communication and was the origin of the U.S. Air Force. Communications technology was advancing but as the U.S. entered WWI an effective method from the past rose to the forefront of aerial communication – the carrier pigeon.
Most often pigeons were released from soldiers on the front lines to deliver messages back to headquarters. But pilots also used pigeons and would slow the plane down and drop them out of the plane. Special precautions and devises were developed to ensure the safety and successful movement of birds such as wicker baskets that fit on a soldiers back that had covers to protect against poisonous gases.
Pigeons were highly regarded and recognized for their efforts such as the case with Cher Ami (French for Dear Friend). When a battalion became separated from their unit and was under attack from friendly fire, Cher Ami took to the skies with a message to cease firing. Despite being shot in the leg, eye, and breast Cher Ami got the message through and saved the lives of 194 soldiers and she was granted a medal for her valor.
The history of the Signal Corps reflects the advancement in communication which benefits civilian life – everything from telephones to movies to facsimiles to satellites. Highlights of the museum include an Oscar awarded to the Signal Corps for their WWII documentary Seeds of Destiny, a telephone from Checkpoint Charlie, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and a telephone from Adolf Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaten. We both agreed this free museum was a hit and were glad we came to learn about an unfamiliar piece of our military's history.
Whew, with one hit under my belt it was time to go see a museum that tells the story of the only intact industrial canal in the American South in continuous use – the Augusta Canal. The Augusta Canal National Heritage Area Interpretive Center is very impressive and as soon as we walked in we knew we scored another hit. After a short film about the canal you enter into the museum portion where life associated with the canal comes alive through a plethora of interactive exhibits, dioramas, and narrated kiosks explaining how the canal was built, how it works to provide hydroelectricity, the history of the mills and working along the canal and other interesting information associated with the canal. And for an added bonus, they offer narrated boat tours that let you enjoy being on the canal and feel a part of history.
The Augusta Canal was built in 1845 as a source of water, power and transportation in Augusta. The canal propelled the fledgling city which only had a grist and saw mill to becoming one of the South's few large manufacturing centers. Early on, the lack of power stymied the city but constructing a canal using water from the Savannah River would provide a reliable source of water and power to move goods. Skeptics were against the canal but Henry H. Cumming persisted with his vision and the canal was dug. The years that followed were prosperous with over 20 successful textile mills springing up along the canal and thousands of people flocking to Augusta for work.
Yet there was a dark side. The 11-hour workdays for children and women were appalling, periodic floods were damaging, and gradually Augusta’s factories converted from canal-driven hydro-mechanical power to electrical power. By the mid 1900’s, the mills and canal fell into disrepair and neglect. Although still the city’s drinking water source, the Canal was no longer the driving force for development it had been 100 years before. At one point in the 1960s, city officials considered draining the Canal and using the land for a superhighway. The mid-1970’s saw a change when people recognized the historical significance, recreational opportunities and environmental value of the canal. The canal and remaining mills were placed on the National Register of Historic Places and a Canal Authority was established to oversee the canal and surrounding public lands. In 1996, the U.S. Congress designated the Augusta Canal a National Heritage Area and a few years later the Enterprise Mill was converted to offices and the Interpretive Center.
As it turned out Augusta had two great attractions and our short two-night stay was definitely worth the trip.