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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Bryan County

Bryan County

Bryan County features an excellent state park, Fort McAllister State Historic Park; the scenic and wild Ogeechee and Canoochee rivers; and the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery. Bryan has become a fast-growing bedroom community of Savannah, a fact recognized by its inclusion into the statistical metropolitan area of Savannah, and is predicted to double its 1980 population of 10,000 residents to 20,000 by the year 2000. Ossabaw Island protects Bryan County's marshes, but the officials who drew the Chatham County line made a southern detour with their pens, placing the island under Chatham County jurisdiction.

Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery

[Fig. 5(4)] Established by the automobile magnate Henry Ford and the state of Georgia in 1938, this facility raises more than 30 million fish of all species and sizes each year. Open to tour, children are often fascinated by the hatchery's operations, which have a tremendous impact on the state's native fisheries. Fish produced here are stocked in reservoirs, lakes, and streams all around the state. The hatchery is also working on saving the rare robust redhorse, a sucker that was believed to be extinct only to be found a few years ago in the Oconee River.

With 41 ponds (21 acres of water on 87 acres), the hatchery annually produces approximately 1.2 million bluegill and 250,000 redear sunfish, 100,000 largemouth bass, and 120,000 channel catfish fingerlings for stocking private ponds and public lakes. More than 20 million striped and hybrid bass fry are artificially propagated each spring from wild broodstock collected from inland reservoir populations. Roughly 1.4 million striped and hybrid bass fingerlings are reared for inland reservoir stockings, and 50,000 intermediate size striped bass—8 to 10 inches long—are produced for restoration of the Savannah River population. Popular fishing rodeos, called Kids Fishing Events, are held each year at three ponds that hold channel catfish.

Henry Ford built a manufacturing plant in Atlanta in 1915. Like Thomas Edison before him, Ford became interested in the area around the Ogeechee River known then known as Ways Station. He purchased an 85,000-acre tract next to the river, and named it Richmond Plantation. When Henry McAlpin's Savannah plantation of Hermitage was dissolved, Ford purchased the huge mansion and used it to construct his winter home. Part of his property included Fort McAllister, a famous Civil War fort, which Ford worked to restore in the 1930s (see Fort McAllister State Park). After Ford's death, the home fell into private hands and is not open to the public.

Ford donated the original land for the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery to the State of Georgia in 1936 with the express purpose of establishing a fish hatchery. The first fish spawned in the hatchery were American shad, which were to be used to stock the Ogeechee River.

Civilian Conservation Corps workers performed initial construction under the direction of J.O. Bacon, and in 1938, the hatchery was opened and operated by the Georgia Game and Fish Division. The hatchery has been renovated and expanded several times since then.

Hatcheries around Georgia perform important restoration work for fish species threatened with extinction. The Richmond Hill Hatchery perhaps represents the last, best hope for a very rare species of fish, the robust redhorse (Moxostoma robustum). This large fish, growing to 30 inches long and 17 pounds, was a plentiful and easily captured source of food for Indians in Georgia and the Carolinas, according to archeologists. With a delicious, white flesh and a predictable migratory behavior, the robust redhorse was to southeastern Indians what salmon was to Indians of the Pacific coast: a dependable food source. Plentiful in Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain rivers of Georgia and the Carolinas, vast numbers of large fish would migrate in April and May to shallow gravel bars to reproduce—so shallow that their backs would be exposed and easy for Indians to spear.

In 1870, the great naturalist Edward Drinker Cope captured a robust redhorse and wrote a brief, two-paragraph description of the fish. He sent it to be held in a natural history collection but the specimen was lost. More than 122 years would go by before anyone was to again capture the fish, realize what it was, and describe it for science. Since Cope's time, the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain rivers have gone through tremendous changes from damming, siltation, and pollution. Robust redhorses suffered as a result, along with the effects of loss of suitable nesting habitat, the extirpation and extinction of their favorite food (mussels), and predation by introduced species such as flathead catfish. How much Georgia's rivers have changed is not widely understood by the public. When geologist Sir Charles Lyell wrote about the Altamaha River in 1845, he emphasized how clear it was, which is hard to believe today if one has spent any time on that magnificent, muddy river.

In 1991, five large robust redhorses were collected from the Oconee River by fishery biologist Jimmy Evans and technician Wayne Clark of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The fish were unlike any species known to occur in that river and they were shipped to fisheries experts for further study. Dr. Byron Freeman of the University of Georgia eventually recognized that this fish was the same described by Cope many years ago. Some of these reproducing fish have been captured, and thanks to fishery science and a grant from Georgia Power, propagation techniques were developed which eventually produced 8- to 10-inch juveniles. These fish were released into the Broad River to see if they could survive. Only time will tell if the robust redhorse will recover, or be lost again, this time forever.

Richmond Hill Historic Society and Museum, Richmond Hill City Recreation Area

[Fig. 5(5)] This museum is dedicated to the history of the Richmond Hill and south Bryan County area. Exhibits cover the plantation, Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Henry Ford eras. Georgia's first royal governor, John Reynolds, tried to move the state capital from Savannah to a nearby site on the Ogeechee River, which he wanted to name Hardwicke. He preferred the Ogeechee River because compared with Savannah, the river at that time had a deeper channel, had a less lofty bluff, was more centrally located on the coast of Georgia, and was located farther away from the rival port of Charleston. He wrote that Hardwicke "has a charming situation, the winding of the river making it a peninsula; and it the only fit place for the capital." His plan was thwarted due to a lack of funds.

Having more influence on the area was Henry Ford, who found refuge in the area from the pressures of his automobile enterprise. Ford purchased 85,000 acres and built 292 residential and commercial buildings, including churches, schools, commissary, medical facilities, Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery, and his winter home, Richmond Plantation.

Located on GA 144 behind the Richmond Hill City Hall is the Richmond Hill City Recreation Area, a new 335-acre park that is a charter member of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail. Opened in the summer of 1999, the park borders Gill's Canal and features 300 acres of wetlands, a 5-acre lake, and 35 acres of park uplands. A network of trails are found at the park, including the 3-mile birding trail that borders the wetlands.

A cannon at Fort McAllister State Historic Park. Fort McAllister State Historic Park

[Fig. 5(6)] With this 1,700-acre park you get a great two-for-one deal: first, a park featuring a fascinating Civil War fort on the southern bank of the Ogeechee River, and second, a park that offers camping and boating in the beauty of Georgia's maritime forests and salt marsh—all just 30 minutes from Savannah.

The park is named after Fort McAllister, a Civil War fort that guarded the back entrance to Savannah. The other part of the park was called Richmond Hill State Park before it was folded into Fort McAllister in 1980. It is one of only four recreational state parks on Georgia's coast. The park is a stop on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail established by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Fort McAllister is located at Genesis Point, the first high ground found upstream from the mouth of the Great Ogeechee River. Genesis Point is actually the northern end of an ancient barrier island of the Pamlico series of sand ridges formed during the Pleistocene era. The high ground was popular with Indians and was the site of the Guale Indian village of Satuache and a Spanish mission San Diego de Satuache from 1610–1663.

Whoever served at Fort McAllister was treated to one of the prettiest views on the Georgia coast. Today, visitors are captivated by views of the sumptuous salt marsh, along with high and low tides that expose productive oyster beds. Solitary wading birds fish in shallower areas and osprey hunt from the sky for finned prey. Lucky observers may see bottle-nosed dolphins playing in the river. Busy woodpeckers and shy songbirds enliven the canopies of the Live Oaks, magnolias, bays, and pines that thrive on the high bank.

Considered today to be the best preserved earthwork fortification of the Confederacy, Fort McAllister was the southern anchor in a chain of Confederate defenses of Savannah built to prevent attack by sea from Union naval forces. It denied the use of the river to Union vessels, protected King's Bridge (2.5 miles north) and the Savannah and Gulf Railroad Bridge, and preserved river plantations from Union raids. At the time, there were three transportation links between the City of Savannah and the Ogeechee River: a road, a railroad, and a canal that connected the Savannah River with the Ogeechee river, allowing the shipment of goods to and from Savannah (see Savannah-Ogeechee Canal).

A picture of Redbird Creek from the dock at Fort McAllister State Park.The fort is historically important and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The success of Fort McAllister, an inexpensive earthwork fort, stands in sharp contrast to the strategic failure of the expensive brick Fort Pulaski, proving dirt is much more resilient to rifled cannon fire than masonry. Fort McAllister survived seven Federal naval attacks, including bombardment from an ironclad that fired the largest shells yet fired by a naval vessel at a shore work in the Civil War.

Named for a local family that had a nearby plantation and built by Confederate Capt. John McCrady, the engineer who designed the defenses of Savannah, Fort McAllister was a massive fort that was described by a Union officer as "a truly formidable work." It featured seven gun emplacements separated by large traverses; 10 other cannon; a 10-inch mortar located outside the fort; a center bombproof used as hospital, supply area, and bomb shelter when the fort was shelled; a barracks and officers quarters; and several powder magazines.

When Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River was lost to the Union guns on Tybee Island, effectively closing the "front door" to Savannah, the "back door"—the Ogeechee River—increased in strategic importance. Confederates obstructed the river, allowing only friendly vessels to navigate the river. One vessel was the Confederate blockade runner Nashville (later called Rattlesnake), which had escaped into the Ogeechee River after being chased from Charleston where the vessel had been unable to penetrate the Union blockade. The Union Navy pursued the faster side-wheeled steamer to the Ogeechee, but was turned back by Fort McAllister after four attacks on the fort and Nashville.

On January 27, 1863, the Montauk, the second monitor-class ironclad constructed by the Union, led a five-ship armada up the Ogeechee to within 1,500 yards of the fort, and opened fire with its big guns. Captain John Worden, who captained the original Monitor against the C.S.S. Virginia (or Merrimack) in the classic battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia, shot 61, 15-inch shells at the fort for five hours. They created huge craters in the ramparts but caused no damage of consequence and no casualties. Confederate guns scored 15 direct hits on the ironclad but did little more than make slight dents in her armor. That night at the fort, the Confederates sneaked out of their bombproof and filled the huge holes with sand, making it as good as new.

Frustrated, Worden and his men returned on February 1, 1863 to make another effort to destroy the fort. Their 48 strikes on the fort did little damage to the Confederate battery, but the commandant of the garrison, Major John B. Gallie, was killed while directing part of the defense. Located upstream was the Nashville, which had been converted into a raider and renamed Rattlesnake. On February 27, the ship came downriver to attempt to escape, but was forced to retire by the blockading Federal Navy. At Seven Mile Bend on the Ogeechee, she ran aground and could not be freed. The next morning, the Montauk navigated up the river and fired on the Rattlesnake, while two other Union vessels fired on Fort McAllister, which fired on the Montauk. The Rattlesnake caught fire and exploded, which shook windows 12 miles away in Savannah. Returning downstream later that day, the Montauk struck a mine, causing another explosion and damage to the Union gunboat. Several days later, the ironclad was unable to join the Federal squadron of nine vessels—three ironclads, three wooden gunboats, and three mortar schooners—that fired on the fort for seven hours in the heaviest bombardment the fort was ever to experience. At the conclusion, the commanding officer, Captain Percival Drayton, decided that no damage had been done that "a good night's work could not repair." The Union Navy retired, to leave the fort unmolested for 21 months.

Fort McAllister was to fall, however, to Union Gen. William T. Sherman's men, who attacked the fort from the mainland on December 13, 1864. Sherman, frustrated at the defenses of Savannah, was desperate to open up a supply line from the Ogeechee River for his hungry troops, but Fort McAllister was protecting the entrance to the river. The fort, garrisoned by little more than 200 men, was stormed by 4,000 Union troops, which simply overran the fort's defenses and fought the Confederates hand to hand in 15 minutes of action. "The fort was never surrendered," reported Confederate Maj. George W. Anderson, "It was captured by overwhelming numbers." When Confederate Capt. Nicholas Clinch was told to surrender, he responded with a blow from his sword, and hand-to-hand combat ensued, with Clinch going down only after three saber, six bayonet, and two gunshot wounds. The Confederate losses were 48 killed and 54 wounded and the Union losses were 134 killed and 110 wounded. Capture of the fort sealed the doom of Savannah, which was evacuated the night of December 19, 1864.

In the late 1930s, automobile industrialist Henry Ford purchased the fort site and spent $200,000 restoring the fort, a kingly sum in the 1930s. In 1958, International Paper Company, which had purchased the property from Henry Ford's estate, deeded the property to the state for a historic park. The Georgia Historic Commission continued Ford's work and renovated the fort to its 1863 appearance. In a large land preservation deal with International Paper Company in the late 1970s, The Nature Conservancy added 1,503 acres to the park.

Today, you can tour the fort and learn its fascinating history in the picturesque setting of the Ogeechee River. A museum is located at the site, and has books and a video related to the history of the area. Beside the parking area are large pieces of machinery salvaged from the wreck of the Rattlesnake.

Near the fort is an extensive picnicking area sheltered under giant oak, pine, palm, and bay trees with a refreshing view of the Ogeechee River and coastal marshlands. Wading birds, warblers, squirrels, and an occasional snake are the most common wildlife. Biting insects can be fierce in the warmer months and insect repellant is highly recommended.

The recreational part of the park is located down a gated road near the park's visitor center. A mile-long causeway crosses a tributary of Redbird Creek and salt marsh leading to Savage Island, where camp facilities, a boat ramp and dock, and the Magnolia Nature Trail are located. From here, visitors can fish, crab or shrimp for their evening meal, or enjoy the scenery over a campfire.

The natural communities and wildlife associated with salt marsh, mature second-growth maritime forest, and freshwater sloughs are featured on the 1.3-mile Magnolia Nature Trail. Brochures are found at the beginning of the trail, which loops from the campground going out to the tidal creek and affords two marsh views before working its way back. Live Oaks with Spanish moss, magnolias, pines, and hickories are the dominant tree species found in this forest, and in the canopy one may see shy migratory songbirds or a great horned owl or tiny screech owl. Sweetgum, wild cherries, and American hollies are also found producing food for wildlife along with red bay, bayberry, sparkleberry, and the climbing muscadine vine with its grapelike fruit.

Mammals commonly seen are raccoons, marsh rabbits, gray squirrels, deer, and deer mice. Reptiles and amphibians one might encounter are yellow rat snakes, diamondback rattlesnakes, green treefrogs, and other species. Fiddler and square-backed crabs populate the salt marsh dominated by smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Wading birds such as great blue herons and great egrets fish in the knee-deep portions, and green-backed herons patiently work shallower areas from mud banks. Flying above the marsh may be osprey and red-tailed hawks. The freshwater sloughs, with waterlilies, arrowheads, cattails, and pickerelweeds, are important shelter, reproduction, and food habitats for amphibians, fish, and insects.

The boat ramp and dock give access to Redbird Creek, which leads to the Bear River and access to the Ogeechee River. Canoes can be rented for an adventure in the tidal creeks. Savage Island has all the "conveniences" of home with 65 campsites with water and electrical hookups, two comfort stations with hot showers, washer/dryer, dumpster, and phone.

Scouts and volunteers are constructing a second nature trail adjacent to the picnic area. The 3-mile Red Bird Creek Nature Trail will give hikers more easier access to the 1,700 acres that make up the park. The park is good for light biking over the causeway and on US 144.

Richmond Hill Wildlife Management Area

[Fig. 5(7), Fig. 12(3)] Approximately 3,720 acres in Bryan County are open to hunting for deer, turkey, small game, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, and doves. The property is west of Kilkenny Creek and east of GA 144, located west of Ossabaw Island.

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