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Archive for April, 2020

In Georgia, there are said to be 70,150 miles of rivers and streams. They stretch across our landscape like tentacles and into our lives, coursing through our neighborhoods, cities, farms, industrial parks—even beneath our world renowned airport.

Where ever we turn, they touch us. If we are native-born Georgians (the census tells us that’s about six million of us), they flow especially deep into our past, feeding our roots and shaping our collective and personal history.

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The Diving Rock on the Chattahoochee River at Palisades. 

I was born at Piedmont Hospital on Peachtree Road in Atlanta Nov. 4, 1966. My first bath that day was in water piped from the Chattahoochee River. Four days after my birth, to the everlasting embarrassment of many modern-day Georgians, segregationist Lester Maddox was elected governor (for the record, I was unable to vote).

Nevertheless, my bath in the Chattahoochee was essentially the same ritual the original inhabitants of the Chattahoochee Valley carried out with their newborns long before our forebearers arrived on the scene…except the Creek Indians didn’t employ pipes. They just plunged the newborns in the river.

Some 32 years later on the sixth day of 1999, my daughter, entered the world at the same hospital and got the same bath. Thank you, Chattahoochee. Before she would turn three years old, Georgians would elect Sonny Perdue, their first Republican governor since Reconstruction. The election pivoted largely on backlash from Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to remove the Confederate stars and bars from the state flag during his first term.

For all that has changed in nearly three centuries of Georgia history, some things remain the same. Yes–our state’s long struggle with racial equality and reconciliation is a continuous thread, but more importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, is our inextricable bond to the streams and rivers that flow through each of us.

In 1733, Georgia’s rivers invited Gen. James Oglethorpe and his colonists into their mouths, giving rise to Savannah. From there the rivers became the primary means by which Europeans settled the interior of the state. In 1800, the state’s third largest city was –to the surprise of many–Petersburg—a hamlet at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah rivers nearly 200 miles upriver from Savannah that no longer exists.

So important were our rivers that the state gave grist mill operators the power of eminent domain, for local communities depended on flour and meal ground by the power of the river. Later in the 1800s, rivers ushered in the industrial revolution, turning spindles and looms at cotton mills. In the 20th century, they brought electric light to rural Georgians (my mother and her family in Newton County were among the first to benefit from hydro-power dams on the South River).

I’ll hazard a bet here. Dig around in the sand, mud and cobble of any Georgia river—ply into its natural and cultural history, flip through the pages of your family history—and you will find a piece of your Garden of Eden, a sliver of your origin story.

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Completed in 1904, power from Morgan Falls Dam powered Atlanta’s street car system. 

I present mine—courtesy of the Georgia Power Company.

Shortly after World War I, Joe Hall Cook, a young man from Ellenwood still suffering the effects of mustard gas in the trenches of Europe, met Passie Mae Hubbard, an unfortunately-named woman from Chamblee at Atlanta’s Grant Park. The cyclorama, the epic painting and diorama memorializing the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, had recently found a permanent home in the park and it was a destination.

Though the Chattahoochee River did not flow near either of their homes, it nonetheless brought the pair from far-flung rural outposts on opposite ends of the city together. It powered the street cars they rode to the park—electricity generated from Georgia Power’s Morgan Falls Dam near Roswell.

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Atlanta’s street cars brought together Joe Hall Cook and Passie Mae Hubbard, the author’s grandparents. 

That initial meeting blossomed into a “street car romance” with each date choreographed around the comings and goings of Atlanta’s street car system. “Meet me at the streetcar” was a line oft-repeated in their early correspondence.

The rest is, as they say, history. Joe Hall and Passie Mae begat James Herbert Cook who married Ann Hull Ramsey of Newton County who begat Joseph Ramsey Cook.

It pains me to say it for I’ve never met a dam I truly liked, but truth be told, my life begins at Morgan Falls Dam and the Chattahoochee River—an ironic Garden of Eden for a lover of free-flowing rivers.

That’s my story. What river flows through your past?

Joe Cook

April 2020

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