A Focused Path

The Vision for Augusta’s Riverwalk

By Don Rhodes

Every year, thousands of visitors and residents walk along the Savannah River from Sixth to 13th streets. Newcomers refer to the area as the “Riverwalk,” but older residents remember the original name, “Oglethorpe Park,” from when it was created 50 years ago.

Locals may be unaware that the beautiful downtown attraction and recreation area is tied to one Augusta woman with a determined vision, Nancy Parks Anderson. Anderson actively participated in the League of Women Voters, the Augusta Symphony Guild, Paine College Public Relations, the Civil Rights Movement and she was the first female elder at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Anderson realized there was not a vantage point of the Savannah River from the levee downtown so she decided it was time for Augusta to make better use of one of its best public assets. Her mission to help create the downtown riverfront park started with an invitation to a picnic. In May 1972, 15 area citizens and Anderson met to discuss what could be done to turn the levee into a riverside park. Among the invitees was Jim Davis, then news anchor for the WJBF television station. He subsequently broadcasted an editorial about Anderson’s hopes and dreams. Another Augusta transplant and member of the Augusta Jaycees, David Peet, heard the broadcast and convinced his civic group to adopt the cause. Just a few days later, a second picnic was held with 40 civic leaders in attendance followed by a third picnic with more than 100 attendees, including members of the Augusta City Council.

Jaycees member David Peet, left, visionary Nancy Anderson and C&S Bank President Bryce Newman look at a model for Oglethorpe Park development. Photo by Lee Downing, The Augusta Chronicle.

Before summer’s end, several local groups donated their time and materials for the project. The National Guard cleared out the underbrush for a bicycle trail and Naval Reserve members cleared the shoreline with help from the Boy and Girl Scouts. Major General Harley J. Moore Jr., commander of Fort Gordon, provided soldiers to assist. The Georgia-Pacific company donated redwood lumber for park benches, the Citizens and Southern National Bank helped to build a large entranceway at Seventh Street and the Georgia Railroad Bank & Company supplied railroad cross ties. Woodhurst & O’Brien architects began drawing up plans for the Seventh Street entranceway, and artist David Jones was commissioned to build a large sculpture at the location. It wasn’t long before the park had a large tree house to view the river and a floating stage for concerts. 

“The riverfront park project seems to hold appeal for everybody,” Anderson remarked in 1972.  “No matter what age they are, what economic status, what race or religion, men and women alike are interested. Not once have we encountered anything but enthusiasm, and we’ve had people come forward on their own offering their services whenever needed. If ever, in recent years, we’ve had an effort that has pulled all of us together, this project seems to be it,” she added.

Along with the local citizens, world-famous visitors who walked through the park included future U.S. President Jimmy Carter as Georgia’s governor; naturalist and author Euell Gibbons, who described the park’s vegetation as “nature’s supermarket” and multi-million selling novelist Erskine Caldwell who donated a small juniper bush.

But like many good projects, sometimes politics get in the way. The Augusta City Council and the Richmond County Commission began arguing over whose responsibility it was to maintain the park in terms of both money and personnel. Over time the great wooden tree deck rotted.  The floating dock stage and the park benches went downhill. The playground ceased to be used, and the park became a home for many of the city’s homeless. All the sweat and hard labor of thousands of volunteers went down the drain.

Oglethorpe Park’s floating stage was used for raft races and arts festival performances in the early 1970s before the Jessye Norman Amphitheater was built. (Hillside photo, Rickey Pittman)

Anderson eventually moved and after her husband’s death, she remarried Bob Donnan, settling in Beaufort, N.C. But Anderson’s dream continued to live on. Augusta Mayor Charles A. DeVaney led a renewed interest in the area and City Council approved $2.7 million in federal community development and trust revenue-sharing funds. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 1986, Riverfront Development Committee Chairman William B. Kuhlke Jr. explained the impact saying, “The important part is that we are re-opening the Savannah River to Augusta.”

The project of rebuilding the riverfront park included another cut in the levee at Eighth Street, a paved brick walkway on top of the levee, construction of 12 seating areas, a bulkhead to protect the riverbank from erosion and reconstruction of the children’s area. All the improvements, of course, led to the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, the Morris Museum of Art, the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, the Georgia Cyber Center and the soon-to-open Fifth Street/Jefferson Davis bridge visitors’ walkway.

Shortly after Nancy Anderson died, her daughter Ellen found a faded page from The Augusta Chronicle’s then “Perspective” section while going through her mother’s items. The story, dated 1972, contained the headline in big, black letters: Oglethorpe Park ─ Dream Near Reality. Though many Augustans may not know of Anderson’s singular role in bringing about the Riverwalk, there is no question that she never forgot the admirable task and how Augustans came together to create one of the city’s greatest treasures.

—-

Photos courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle
Photo opening and ending by Randy Pace

Appears in the October 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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