Savannah’s recorded history begins in 1733. That’s the year General James Oglethorpe, and the 120 passengers of the good ship “Anne” landed on a bluff high along the Savannah River in February. Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony “Georgia” after England’s King George II. Savannah became its first city.
Upon settling, Oglethorpe became friends with the local Yamacraw Indian chief, Tomochichi. Oglethorpe and Tomochichi pledged mutual goodwill and the Yamacraw chief granted the new arrivals permission to settle Savannah on the bluff. As a result, the town flourished without warfare and accompanying hardship that burdened many of America’s early colonies.
During the American Revolution, the British took Savannah in 1778 and held it into 1782. A land-sea force of French and Americans tried to retake the city in 1779, first by siege and then by direct assault, but failed.
After independence was secured, Savannah flourished. Soon, farmers discovered that the soil was rich and the climate favorable for cultivation of cotton and rice. Plantations and slavery became highly profitable systems for whites in the neighboring “Lowcountry” of South Carolina. So Georgia, the free colony, legalized slavery.
But Savannah was not spared from misfortune. Two devastating fires in 1796 and 1820 each left half of Savannah in ashes but residents re-built. The year 1820 saw an outbreak of yellow fever that killed a tenth of its population. Savannah also survived fires, epidemics and hurricanes, but always bounced back.
Pre-Civil War Savannah was praised as the most picturesque and serene city in America. It was known for its grand oaks festooned with Spanish moss, and its genteel citizenry. The Georgia Historical Society was founded in that era. Magnificent Forsyth Park, acquired its ornate fountain, a sight worth seeing.
At the turn of the 20th century, cotton was king again. Savannah thrived, as did her new industries, including the export of resin and lumber. Then the boll weevils came, destroying most of the cotton and the state’s economy—about the same time that the Great Depression began.
Historic River Street, paved with 200-year-old cobblestones, runs along the length of the Savannah River. Once lined with warehouses holding King Cotton, the neighborhood never fully recovered from the yellow-fever epidemic and subsequent quarantine of 1818. Abandoned for over a century, it was rediscovered in the 1970s by local landowners and urban planners determined to revive the history and the glory of old River Street.
In June of 1977, at a cost of $7 million, a new waterfront was unveiled for the city of Savannah. Some 80,000 square feet of empty abandoned warehouse space was transformed in to a colorful array of shops, restaurants and art galleries.
But there is more to do here than just shop and eat. Be sure to take a stroll along the lovely landscaped river walk that runs between River Street and the Savannah River, where you’ll find Savannah’s Waving Girl and the Olympic Cauldron monument. Then explore the bluffs along the river on the old passageway of alleys, cobblestone walkways, and bridges known as Factors Walk.
River Street works its way from east to west along the Savannah River. It was the main artery for traffic and goods coming into Savannah during those early years in the 1700′s and much of the 1800′s. The port, which was located on River Street, was the driving force behind Savannah’s economic rise during that same time period. The riverfront has always played an important role in Georgia, whether as colonial port, exporter of cotton, or tourist destination.
Significant buildings that were saved and restored include:
- The Pirates’ House (1754), an inn mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “Treasure Island”; the Herb House (1734), oldest building in Georgia; and the The Olde Pink House (1789), site of Georgia’s first bank.
- The birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low (completed in 1821) now owned and operated by the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. as a memorial to their founder.
- The Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, built in 1812 as a mansion, was one of the South’s first public museums.
- Restored churches include: The Lutheran Church of the Ascension (1741); Independent Presbyterian Church (1890) and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (1876), one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in the South.
- The First African Baptist Church was established in 1788.
- Savannah’s Temple Mickeve Israel is the third oldest synagogue in America.
The Pirates’ House is a preserved seaman’s tavern allegedly built in 1794. Located only a block from the Savannah River, the tavern was a popular meeting place for sailors and pirates alike. Stories are told that sea captains frequently shanghaied unwitting seaman from the tavern to complete their crews. Drunken seaman were drugged and carried away to strange ships, bound for unknown destinations.
Around 1753, when Georgia had become firmly established and the need for an experimental garden no longer existed, the site was developed as a residential section. Since Savannah had become a thriving seaport town, one of the first buildings constructed on the former garden site was naturally an Inn for visiting seamen. Situated a scant block from the Savannah River, the Inn became a rendezvous of bloodthirsty pirates and sailors from the Seven Seas. Here seamen drank their fiery grog and discoursed, sailor fashion, on their adventures from Singapore to Shanghai, and from San Francisco to Port Said.
These very same buildings have recently been converted into one of America’s most unique restaurants: The Pirates’ House. Even though every modern restaurant facility has been installed, the very atmosphere of those exciting days of wooden ships and iron men has been carefully preserved.
Hanging on the walls in the Captain’s Room and The Treasure Room are frames containing pages from an early, very rare edition of the book Treasure Island. The tavern was made famous in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” According to the book, Captain Flint died in an upstairs room, shouting with his last breath, “Darby, bring aft the rum.” Stevenson’s fictional character, Long John Silver, said, “I was with Flint when he died at Savannah.”
It was in the chamber known as the Captain’s Room with its hand hewn ceiling beams joined with wooden pegs, negotiations were made by shorthanded ships’ masters to shanghai unwary seamen to complete their crews. Stories still persist of a tunnel extending from the Old Rum Cellar beneath the Captain’s Room to the river, through which these men were carried, drugged, and unconscious, to ships waiting in the harbor. Indeed, many a sailor drinking in carefree abandon at The Pirates’ House awoke to find himself at sea on a strange ship bound for a port half a world away. A Savannah policeman, so legend has it, stopped by The Pirates’ House for a friendly drink and awoke on a four-masted schooner sailing to China from where it took him two years to make his way back to Savannah.
The land Savannah was built upon was chosen because it was a natural fort. Located high up on a bluff, the ground offered protection from an attack by water. This is one of the reasons General Oglethorpe decided on building the city of Savannah where he did. Little did he know (or maybe he did and didn’t care) that this area was also used as a burial ground by many of the Indian tribes in the area. River Street was located on the bottom of the bluff. It was from River Street that the docks were built that helped shape the world’s economies with cotton…and slaves. Cotton was shipped out (a long with many other exports) and slaves were shipped in.
While workers hustled day and night to keep the outgoing ships loaded with goods and products, ships were also coming into port to unload their cargo. For almost 100 years, this cargo included human beings, slaves, bound in chains and metal. For these people, it wasn’t a land of freedom and prosperity they were being brought to. For them, it was a land of cruelty, heartache and dream crushing sadness. After being unloaded from the ships, these slaves were brought into the warehouses on River Street. This was usually done under the cover of darkness, to hide from potential buyers the horrid condition these people were in. The slaves were imprisoned in the warehouses…. and once they were ready for market they were led out of the back of the warehouses, through the Factors’ Walk area and beneath Bay Street via tunnels into the basements of buildings up and down Bay Street. Many of the slaves never made it out of the buildings on River Street, succumbing to diseased conditions and utter despair; their fragile bodies unable to bear another day of lose and utter sadness. There are even the remains of shackles in some of the buildings along River Street and Bay Street.
The slaves, who were brought into Savannah not only helped establish Savannah’s prosperity, but they also contributed to Savannah’s haunted present. Many of the buildings along River Street were used to house slaves after their trip from Africa. One can only imagine the atrocities, which took place in these buildings. The negative energy felt by these slaves still casts a dark shadow on many locations on River Street.
Take your chances and stay at a converted cotton warehouse where a lot of these slaves perished. The River Street Inn’s original two floors, built in 1817 out of recycled ballast stone, were soon inadequate to house the increasing amount of cotton moving through the port. As the building has the Savannah River to the north and a high bluff to the south, with buildings on either side, the only way to expand was to go higher.
Similar to many of the buildings along the river, the original structure of the hotel was built for the storage, sampling, grading, and export of raw cotton. By early in the 19th century, Savannah was the world’s second largest cotton seaport, due in large part by the invention of the cotton gin.
It was necessary to have outside access to each level for the storage and removal of the large cotton bales, and this need resulted in the creation of a series of alleys and walkways on the bluff. These alleys became known as “Factor’s Walk” after the professionals who graded the cotton. These alleys add to the character and unique, historic design of the hotel. Additionally, the riverside streets and surrounding structures of ballast stone were once ballast in the numerous ships that traveled to Savannah from all over the world.
The cobblestone street would make it difficult for a wheelchair, scooter, or stroller. The walking path along the river is smooth, and small portions of the street are smooth, but most of the street is cobblestone (actually ballast from early sailing ships).
On the lower floors are wide, arched doorways that were necessary to accommodate moving large bales of cotton. In 1853, the top three floors were added, allowing additional storage on the third floor and an office on the fourth and fifth. Since the upper three levels were used for office space, there are floor to ceiling windows which allowed the maximum amount of light, fireplaces for warmth, and probably most significant, the balconies that provided the factors with the opportunity to observe the arrival, departure, loading, and unloading of cargo ships.
After the Civil War as prices plummeted, the Savannah cotton warehouses fell into disuse. The building now housing the River Street Inn became a warehouse for various shipping concerns until redevelopment in 1987. In 1998, the River Street Inn expanded from its original structure containing 44 guest rooms into the adjoining building, and increased in size to the present 86 rooms.
Savannah’s Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. It is one of the largest historic landmarks in the country.