The 1853 Gas Works Wall at Trustees’ Garden is often mistaken for “Old Fort Wayne.” Studies find that it is partially… very partially… true.
Historians and archaeologists uncovered a wealth of military and industrial history on the grounds and in the buildings situated on an historic bluff overlooking the Savannah River.
The surface is rough and scratches at my fingertips as I run them along the plane of fire-hardened bricks. A faint-but-pungent scent of coal tar wafts from the walls that have been forgotten and misinterpreted for generations. In sequence, seven earthen fortifications stood here through the years. There is nothing left of them today – or so many historians believe. But here is the evidence: a small section of one fortification did survive, undetected by decades of history buffs and connoisseurs of the past.
This remnant of an earlier Savannah is old. Well, “old” by the youngest-of-the-thirteen-colonies benchmark. Hidden in plain sight for a century and a half, the now sandy-brown wall reflects the morning light through a narrow archway. A few yards away sleepy commuters navigate past, their vehicles climbing the road-grade beside the city’s legendary Trustees’ Garden. If a piece of land could be a movie character, Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden would be Forrest Gump. Always in the background, excluded and ignored.
But like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, the site holds secrets of which the bus-stop folks know little. The Garden’s ten-acre plot of sloping ground has, as some say, “more history per square foot than any other spot in the city.” And, I like to think, possibly in the southeast. I love and study history. Never have I seen one small plot of land with so many significant and overlapping historical characteristics. The Trustees’ Garden was planned in 1732 when Georgia’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, enlisted the help of John Pine, an English artist, and engraver. The two of them conferred and drew a plan for rows, rank, and file for mulberry, orange, peach and other trees and then inked the lot lines for the rest of the town.
When the settlers arrived in 1733 Oglethorpe staked-out the garden and had it planted the following spring. The garden itself lasted less than two decades. In historical records, the area is always an afterthought — a footnote. Life and history are like that. Who knew this chocolate-history-bonbon in a box held so many hidden treats and treasures? You never know what you’re gonna get. The land has changed hands many times over the years. Early on, the profits expected by the Trustees failed to blossom, so the title was passed to former Royal Governors, then to industrialists, and eventually to hotel developers. The current owner, Charles H. Morris, initiated a shift toward the preservation of the Garden’s rich history. The renovation and historical inspection of the site is slowly revealed forgotten stories that seem to peel away, like the layers of a Vidalia onion.
A historian in his own right, Morris took his time with the renovation. “I want to get it done right,” he said. “I want to make sure we think it through.” The Garden’s northernmost section, alongside the Savannah River, has long been known as a strategic military location. Over the years, military leaders fortified the bluff to provide protection against enemy ships that might sail up the river from the Atlantic.
Earthen fortifications were built on the site when hostilities seemed imminent. Then, as each war or threat of war ended, each successive fortification fell into ruin. Dirt is easy enough to move, so for each new conflict, the battlement-du-jour was staked and excavated in accordance with the newest defensive plan. The soil from the dry moats was “thrown up” to the inner line to create the parapets… time after time, fortification after fortification. At least seven battlements have stood on this site, beginning with colonial times and extending through the Civil War, when the last fort anchored the Union Army’s line on what was then the terrace of the Savannah Manufactured Gas Works.
In order the seven were; Oglethorpe’s fort, built circa 1740, Fort Halifax, circa 1759, Fort Savannah, 1778, British cannon emplacements employed during the Siege of Savannah 1779, Fort Prevost, 1780, Fort Wayne, 1813, and the Union fortifications in 1865. There is evidence that there may have been additional fortifications as well, but that is yet to be determined. An interesting legend surrounds the brick wall that currently stands watch over the river at the location of the recently discovered Revolutionary War-era structure. Guide books refer to the wall as part of “Old Fort Wayne.”
Many historians do the same. The confusion is justified. The building of the wall in 1853 destroyed the older fort that was the namesake of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The older earthen ramparts were shoveled into the interior of the wall to create a terrace for gasholders. Workers unearthed old cannons that they placed along the wall, making it look like an old fort to generations of Savannahians.
Everybody in town knew that the fort had been located on that spot. After all, the cannons were there to prove it. Fort Halifax, the second on the bluff, was built in 1759. It was a tender spot and tinder box during the days leading up to the American Revolution. In December 1765 the “obnoxious” stamps that represented taxation by the Crown were stored at the fort. Royal Governor James Wright placed the stamps there for protection against the local Sons of Liberty, who vowed to burn them. Fifty-five Royal Rangers under the leadership of the Governor and Captain John Milledge stood guard. Nearby, 200 angry Patriots awaited an opportunity to strike a blow for liberty. Wright had the stamps moved by ship to Cockspur Island at the mouth of the river, thus defusing the matter, at least for awhile.
And that’s only a partial history of the site. I’ll post more later.
– JD Byous