Here’s the remainder of my article that ran in the past issue of Georgia Backroads Magazine. Again, if you like history take a look at your local book store in the South. I found copies at Barnes and Noble, but you can order back issues or subscribe at http://georgiabackroads.com. Here’s the first section of the article. Over the next few weeks you can read it here in its entirety. ————
The Mysteries of Trustees’ Garden, Part 2.
by James Byous
The Savannah Manufactured Gas Works was built on the bluff in 1849 in part to supply gas lighting to Savannah’s wharves a stone’s throw away at the bluff’s base. Light was needed to discourage kidnapping on the docks, where the shanghaiing of sailors was rampant. Five years later, the mayor reported that of 100 policemen working for the city, 60 were assigned to the wharves to combat the problem. Lighting helped, but kidnapping continued to be a problem for decades.
The Lamar wharf was situated about 600 yards northeast of Trustee Garden. In 1859, Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar earned the distinction of being the last person in the United States tried for illegally importing slaves. The neighboring Gordon wharf was owned by the family of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of America. Just to the west, Willink’s wharf is where the ironclad C.S.S. Georgia was built and launched in 1862.
At the gas works on the bluff, coal was converted into gas for lighting. This process created coal tar residue, a byproduct of heating coal in ovens. This tar seeped into the sandy bluff. Over the course of a century, the black, gooey, toxic solution found its way through the sand and eventually into the Savannah River. In 2001, the soil inside the wall, remnant dirt from Fort Wayne, was excavated and hauled away for cleaning.
That project provided an opportunity for a fast-paced archaeological study. The work revealed the long-forgotten arrangement of interlacing brick walls that supported the old gas-holding tank. When the team excavated several pits a few feet from the wall along the road bed, benzene and ammonia belched from the holes. Later, these contaminants were removed so that only traces remain. Correcting these missteps of the industrial age took years of hard work.
The Kehoe Iron Works complex once occupied the south end of the Garden property. In 1842 the Irish-immigrant family of ten-year-old William Kehoe moved into a tenement house at the south edge of Trustees Garden. The boy had no idea that 40 years later he would own a successful iron foundry across the street.
William Kehoe is a success story that merits the label “Made in America.” Four of the main buildings he built have stood empty for decades. The oldest structures were built in the 1880s and are scheduled for renovation in the next few months. Work on the one known as the Metal Building is nearing completion. Erected about 1900 the iron-framed utilitarian-style structure was at the point of collapse. The crew that excavated the foundation uncovered a window into the past. The brickwork revealed that several structures were successively built on an original foundry footing. At least four previous foundations make up the final wall that stands on a spot that once served as a pre-1870s community dump and an earthen War-of-1812 fortification wall.
Engineers and architects also discovered an interesting Metal Building characteristic linking it directly to one of America’s captains of industry. The columns and beams feature raised “Carnegie Steel” lettering. This dates the building since J.P. Morgan purchased Andrew Carnegie’s steel company in 1901 for $480 million, making Carnegie the richest man in the world at the time. Thereafter, the columns and beams manufactured by the company would bear Morgan’s “U.S. Steel” trademark. Since the building does not appear on insurance maps printed in 1898, it had to be built between that year and the year of Morgan’s purchase of the steel company. This discovery makes the Metal Building one of the last Carnegie structures built… another peel of the historic onion.
The name Trustees Garden has continued from generation to generation. For many years, Savannahians deemed the garden to be “outside” town even though it was only a quarter mile from the original city gate and eventually came to be included within the city limits. Throughout the city’s 280-year history, the garden area was a location for the underclasses. In the beginning it was a neighborhood of slaves and freedmen and later included the Irish.
The Trustees Garden is unique in that it was an integrated community for a dozen decades prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Blacks and white Irish workers shared employment in the foundry and labored together at the gas works. The need for iron-hardened workers provided employment for men who endured the hellish conditions in both facilities. In the summer months, workers inside the brick buildings experienced temperatures of 130 to 140 degrees while hand-stoking coal or pouring liquid iron.
Blacks and whites of the Garden community worked together, ate together, drank together – sometimes heavily – and shared housing. Savannah society tolerated this lifestyle with an out-of-town, out-of-mind viewpoint. It was unlawful for blacks to frequent white stores, bars and restaurants, but they did so in the Garden. It is suggested that no beat-cop wanted the job of ousting the black friends and co-workers of burley, rough, just-off-the-boat Irish dock and iron workers, so tolerance was the better part of valor.
Mary Hillyer, the wife of Savannah Gas President Hansell Hillyer, took on the project of restoring the Garden and its buildings in the late 1940s. She recruited local realtor Dot Courington to help. Together, they oversaw the project that would transform the Garden’s greasy, smut-and-oil coated buildings into a residential apartment complex with at positive cash flow.
Savannah resident Patrik Ruddy recalls living in an apartment in the Three Gables Building in 1996. “It was a cool place to live,” he says. “The energy bills were low because of the eight, twelve-foot-high windows,” that ventilated his two-bedroom, one-bath apartment that overlooked the Savannah River. He remembers sitting on his decorative iron balcony to watch the fireworks during the 1996 Olympics yachting ceremony. There was one drawback: a door that refused to stay locked and continually opened by itself. Ruddy recalls, “The neighbors would walk by and ask, ‘Why is your door open?’ I had it locked. But it would open by itself.”
History buffs often comment that they “feel” history. As I stand looking at the gray-brick wall in the Trustees’ Garden, history is talking to me. All of the earthen fortifications are gone, but the powder magazines of two of the strongholds, Fort Prevost and Fort Wayne, were in line with the wall to my front. The shallow arch hadn’t made sense to me during past visits, but a map overlay shows that this was a partially-covered doorway, the original entrance to this once-buried bunker. Apparently when the earth was moved to fill the terrace, the brick-constructed magazine presented extra work and cost. It was the perfect place to put an oven for burning oyster shells into the lime used in the filtration of gas.
Like Kehoe’s foundry foundations, it was easier to build on the past than to destroy it. Preservation came down to dollars and cents. I suppose that’s proper and normal. As Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
A retired journalist in Savannah, James Byous holds a master’s degree in historical archaeology and is a history consultant in southeast Georgia. He is currently writing a history of Trustees’ Garden and Savannah.
© J.D. Byous 2015 All Rights Reserved.