Savannah is the major city for coastal Georgia and is located about 8 miles off the Waterway. The Savannah River is not particularly welcoming to recreational boaters-- it is the fourth largest port in the United States and has a lot of commercial ship traffic. Most boaters visit Savannah by stopping at nearby boater-friendly communities such as the Isle of Hope, Thunderbolt, or Wilmington Island. We visited Wilmington Island, a suburb of Savannah. We stayed in Savannah for eight days, but we didn't go downtown until four days later. As soon as we made it to Savannah, a cold front blew in, bringing record low temperatures to Savannah. When the temperatures dipped into the high 30's, we turned on the heat. (Yes, we have heat! Remember the Mermaid air-conditioner we installed in Marathon? It is reverse-cycle heat as well. We turned on the generator and viola!, the boat was toasty warm in only a few minutes).
Wilmington Island, Georgia
We traveled into a small waterway, Turner's Creek, and anchored up the creek near Hogan's Marina. We tied up our dinghy at the marina dock for the day, paid a $10 dinghy dock fee, and took a 45-minute bus ride on the public Savannah city bus to visit the downtown historic district located on the waterfront of the Savannah River.
Savannah's Historic Downtown District
Savannah's downtown district is a walk back in time. Rich in southern culture, it is one of the largest National Historic Districts in the United States. Each year, Savannah attracts millions of visitors and it is easy to see why. Savannah is adorned with extraordinary architecture, lush botanicals, and charming city squares. Nothing beats exploring the city by foot. It's an easy walk... the historic district is only 2 1/2 square miles. We went to the tourist information center, then, armed with brochures about the city, we hopped on a free shuttle bus to explore the downtown squares. Our first stop was at the back edge of the historic district, Forsyth Park.
Forsyth Park was originally created in the 1840's on 10 acres of land donated by William Hodgson. In 1851, the park was expanded and named for Georgia Governor John Forsyth. The famous fountain at the north end of the park was added in 1858 and is similar to fountains in Paris. The Parisian model of developing large city parks was emulated by large cities in the United States. The fountain is seen in the 1962 version of the movie, Cape Fear.
Standing in the middle of Forsyth Park lies the Confederate Memorial Statue. This work of art was donated by the Monroe County Courthouse to commemorate those volunteers who gave their life fighting for the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Savannah was, in December 1864, the prize at the end of the Union army's devastating "March to the Sea", but was spared by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who made her a Christmas "gift" to President Abraham Lincoln.
The Owens-Thomas House is considered one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in America. Completed in 1819, and occupying a full block, the home features a columned entrance portico, handsome cast iron balcony, winding double stairway, and arched second story windows. The interior boasts a magnificent stairway of mahogany, cast iron and brass and elegant furnishings. The foundation of the home and garden walls are built of tabby, a regional material made of sand, shells and lime. It was originally built for Richard Richardson, a Bermuda-born banker and cotton merchant. Congressman, lawyer and one-time Savannah Mayor George Welshman Owens purchased the home in 1830 for $10,000. The Owens-Thomas house remained in the Owens family until 1951 when Owens granddaughter, Margaret Thomas, bequeathed it to Savannah’s art museum, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Along the famous streets of the historic squares, Bull Street, Drayton Street, Oglethorpe Street, Abercorn, to name a few, are many grand mansions. Savannah was a bustling port famed for exporting cotton, and a city of culture whose architecture blended a variety of styles still in evidence- Federal, English Regency, Greek Revival, Italianate, Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne.
These beautifully restored homes are the heart and soul of the historic district. There are old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, grand mansions, and beautiful ornamental ironwork. It is like walking in an outdoor museum.
Savannah's Historic Squares
Twenty-two of Savannah's original 24 squares remain today as a living legacy of the plan set forth by General James Edward Oglethorpe to build a colony around town squares where citizens would gather for social and civic events. Surrounded by stately homes and beautiful gardens, they form the heart of a 2½-square-mile historic district with more than 2,000 historic or architecturally significant buildings. There's lots of history, beautiful scenery, and historical monuments to see. Park benches beckon you to sit for a while and watch the world go by.
The squares vary in size and personality, from the formal fountain and monuments of the largest, Johnson, to the playgrounds of the smallest, Crawford.
Chippewa Square is one of Savannah's many famous picturesque squares. It was laid out in 1815 and soon became the social hotspot. It is named for a famous battle fought during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The square features a large monument to Savannah's founder, General James Edward Oglethorpe.
Parts of the movie Forrest Gump were filmed here in 1994. This is the place where Forrest Gump sat on a bench with a box of chocolates, telling his life story as he waited for a bus to take him to his beloved Jenny’s house. But the spot in Chippewa Square on Hull Street never had a real bus stop, and the bench used in the movie is in the Savannah History Museum.
Wright's Square, laid out in 1733, is now the site of Tomo-Chi-Chi's grave and a monument to Georgia's last Royal Governor. Tomo-Chi-Chi was the Yamacraw chief who offered peace and cooperation with the early settlers of Georgia. On February 12, 1733, General Oglethorpe and his settlers landed at Yamacraw Bluff and were greeted by Tomo-Chi-Chi, the Yamacraws, and Indian traders John and Mary Musgrove. The city of Savannah was founded on that date, along with the colony of Georgia. In 1751, Savannah and the rest of Georgia became a Royal Colony and Savannah was made the colonial capital of Georgia.
Pulaski Square was laid out in 1837 to honor Count Casmir Pulaski, a Polish immigrant. He was the highest ranking foreign soldier to die during the American Revolution at the Siege of Savannah in 1779. He had come at the request of Benjamin Franklin, who met him in Paris and convinced him to join the fight for the colonies after it eluded him in his native country.
Wormsloe Fountain sits at the center of Columbia Square. The fountain in the center once stood on the Wormsloe Plantation outside the city limits. This was the ancestral home of the Jones and DeRenne families. The acquisition and restoration of the Davenport house near Columbia Square kicked off a rush of preservation activity on the square and in the 1970s, Eudora and Wainwright Roebling renovated the square itself, adding this beautiful fountain from the plantation.
Madison Square was named after the second President of the United States, James Madison, and surrounding it are some of the most important and interesting buildings in the city. The square was laid out in 1837 and memorializes the Georgia Revolutionary War hero Sgt. William Jasper who was killed at the Siege of Savannah in October 1779 while attempting to rescue the colors of his regiment.
Savannah is home to a number of historic houses of worship.
One of the most beautiful is Georgia's oldest Catholic church, St. John the Baptist Cathedral. The Victorian Gothic Cathedral was dedicated at this site in 1876, was nearly destroyed by fire in 1898, and rebuilt using the original plans in 1900.
Interior scenes of St. John the Baptist Cathedral.
Wesley Monumental Methodist Church, 1868, features Gothic Revival architecture.
Congregation Mickve Israel, 1878, is the third oldest Jewish synagogue in the United States. It is the only Gothic Revival synagogue in the US.
St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church, 1900.
Independent Presbyterian Church, 1816, is known as the mother church for Georgia's Presbyterians. The church was seen in the opening of the movie "Forrest Gump." The white feather falling from the sky passes by its' tall steeple.
Colonial Park Cemetery
Colonial Park Cemetery is right in the heart of the historic district. Established in 1750, many of Savannah's earliest citizens are buried here, including many who were victims of Savannah's tragic dueling era. More than 700 victims of the 1820 yellow fever epidemic are buried here. The cemetery closed for burials in 1853 and became a city park in 1896.
The Colonial Park Cemetery is also home to one of Savannah's most famous ghosts, that of "Rene Asche Rondolier, a disfigured orphan who was said to have called Colonial Park his home in the early 1800s. Accused of murdering two girls whose bodies were found in the cemetery, Rene was dragged to the nearby swamps and lynched and left for dead. More dead bodies turned up in the cemetery in the days that followed. The townspeople were convinced it was Rene's ghost and some still call the cemetery, Rene's playground. Not surprisingly, the cemetery is a popular place for nighttime ghost tours.
Factors Row and Factors Walk are located on a bluff just above the River Walk. Factors Row is a unique collection of red brick buildings, formerly a center of commerce for Savannah’s cotton factors, or brokers. Factors Row was also home to the original Cotton Exchange, where cotton factors, or brokers, set prices worldwide. Running from east to west above the river, these vast brick buildings rise two or three stores above the bluff and descend for three or more stories to the river front. The topside contained the offices of the cotton brokers and the building on the lower River Street side were used as warehouses. A series of iron and concrete walkways, known as Factors Walk, connected the buildings to the bluff. Ramps leading from Bay Street down the bluff to River Street are paved with cobblestones, brought as ballast and abandoned on the riverbanks by departing sailing ships.
Savannah Cotton Exchange
The famous Savannah Cotton Exchange stands as a grand reminder of cotton's influence on this city. For nearly a century, trading in the Cotton Exchange on Savannah's waterfront set world cotton prices. Cotton farming was greatly expanded following Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, an event that took place near Savannah in 1793. Shortly thereafter, cotton shipments from the area soared to more than two million bales annually. By the 1880's, Savannah was known as the "Wall Street of the South". It was a little insect, the boll weevil, that rendered the mighty building useless by 1920.
Built in 1886 by Boston architect William G. Preston, the cotton exchange was one of the first major buildings to be constructed entirely over a public street. Built of red brick with a terra cotta façade, iron window lintels and copper finials and copings, the building is one of the best surviving examples of the Romantic Revival period.
Savannah City Hall
Savannah City Hall is a Renaissance Revival building with classic proportions and detailing. Built in 1901, it is located on the Yamacraw bluff overlooking the Savannah River. The dome rises 70 feet into the air. It was originally clad in copper, but was guilded in 1987, a gift from a local philanthropist. Tissue paper thin sheets of 23-karat gold leaf were applied to the dome, cupola, and clock hands.
Port of Savannah
The Port of Savannah is the fourth busiest and fastest growing container port in the United States. In 2007, it handled 2.3 million units of container traffic. Located 18 miles from the Atlantic Ocean on the Savannah River, it has extensive facilities for oceangoing vessels. In early 2008, Heineken opened a distribution center that handles 7000 containers a year, moving containers from breweries in the Netherlands to provide 7 million cases of Heineken and Amstel beer to the Southeast states yearly. That's a lot of beer! Target and IKEA furniture also have large distribution centers in Savannah.
The 185-foot vertical clearance Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1990, has a 1100-foot span and connects Savannah to South Carolina.
Savannah's Historic River Street Riverfront Plaza
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 1970's by local landowners and urban planners determined to revive the history and glory of old River Street.
In June 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 into shops, restaurants, and art galleries.
We took a leisurely walk along the landscaped river walk, and came upon the famous statue of the "Waving Girl".
Home of the Waving Girl
Stories from the 1880's describe a girl named Florence Martus, who lived in a little house on Elba Island overlooking the Savannah River. Every day, Florence waited for her lover to return, waving to passing ships in hope one day it would be his ship. Sailors grew accustomed to seeing the girl waving a cloth handkerchief during the day and a lantern at night as the arrived at the port of Savannah. They grew fond of her and she was known among mariners as the "Waving Girl". Some even brought her small gifts from their voyages. Her intended never returned, but Florence, some say she was lonely, continued to wave at each passing ship. She greeted the ships from 1887 until 1931; from age 19 until she was 63 years old. A statue of Martus by the sculptor Felix de Weldon has been erected in Morrell Park on the historic riverfront of Savannah.
The city of Savannah has become identified with a single book and movie: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt, written in 1994. The novel remained on the New York Times' best seller list for 216 consecutive weeks. It's the true story of Savannah's inner culture--including a society patron (Jim Williams), a drag queen (the Lady Chablis), and a Santeria priestess (Minerva) --experienced by a wide-eyed Yankee. The book is on display at every book shop and gift shop in Savannah, and there are tours available to visit the famous Old Bonaventure Cemetery featured on the cover of the book and the film poster. The famous "Bird Girl" statue is now located at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, where it is on permanent display. The cemetery is located outside Savannah near Thunderbolt, Georgia. We didn't get to visit the cemetery, but we did walk by the Mercer-Williams House, located on Monterey Square.
..Antiques dealer Jim Williams lived in the elegant old "Johnny Mercer" house (1868, Italianate), Although the house was built by Johnny Mercer's great grandfather Civil War General Hugh W. Mercer, none of the Mercer family actually lived there. After the war, Hugh Mercer sold the house to John Wilder, who completed the construction. The house became associated with Johnny Mercer with the filming of the movie. (Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics or scores to 1000 songs including "Moon River", "Days of Wine and Roses", "Come Rain or Come Shine", "Charade", and "Autumn Leaves" to name but a few. Mercer does have a claim to Savannah, however, as he was born there). Jim Williams bought the house in 1969 and began a 2 year renovation of the run-down property. This is one of fifty houses that Williams is credited with restoring. Accused of shooting Danny Hansford in the study of the Mercer House in 1981, Jim Williams was found not guilty of the murder after his fourth murder trial in 1989, but his victory would be short-lived. Six months later, Jim Williams died unexpectedly at his home, at the age of 59, from heart failure and pneumonia. The house, filled with 18th century portraits and beautiful antiques, is now owned by Jim Williams' sister and is open for tours.
Club One and the Lady Chablis
Another personality made famous from "the movie" was the Lady Chablis, a local drag queen. The Lady Chablis (aka "The Doll", "The Grand Empress") became notable in the early 1990's when she was featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Chablis played herself in the 1997 movie, then made several appearances on talk shows when the book and the movie were released.
The Lady Chablis is a regular performer at Club One, which defines itself as the premier bar in a town priding itself on a level of decadence that falls somewhere between New Orleans and Key West. Patrons include lesbians and gays from the coastal islands, visiting urbanites, and cast and crew of whatever film is being shot in Savannah at the time (Demi Moore and Bruce Willis showed up here in happier times). There's also likely to be a healthy helping of voyeurs who've read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and are catching the monthly Lady Chablis show. Did we make the show?? No, we had to hop on our bus and scurry back to our boat before nightfall!
We enjoyed our stay in Savannah
We traveled in to the city twice to view all the sights. We enjoyed our stay in Savannah, but cold weather blew in, and we decided it was time to head back south. Our plans?? Travel the ICW, stopping at a few anchorages along the way until we reach Cumberland Island. After a brief visit to Cumberland, we will return to Fernandina Beach, Florida. We will take care of some business while in Fernandina... mail a few packages, receive a few packages, eat some good food, and provision the boat for the Bahamas.... How long will this take?? We will be in Fernandina at least a month, and will try to be in the Bahamas for Christmas. When will we make it? Will we make it? Who knows... our plans are always subject to change! Stay tuned for the next installment!
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