An interesting historic city with an old-world graciousness and distinctly Southern aura, Savannah has become popular in recent years, especially for exploring the delights of the restored inner city and waterfront. With a population of 136,262 and a wider metropolitan population of 293,000, Savannah is Georgia’s third-largest settlement. It is located in the southeast of the state on the Savannah River, which forms the state border with South Carolina. Savannah is 223 miles from Atlanta. It is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by an 18-mile deepwater channel and is one of the South’s major ports.
The first colonial settlement in Georgia and the first planned city in the United States, Savannah was established in 1733 by James Oglethorpe and 114 English Protestants. Oglethorpe originally envisaged the settlement as a utopian alternative to English society and a haven for those from English debtors’ prisons. The problems of English society, as Oglethorpe saw it, were overcrowding and cankerous social practices. Savannah was intended as a fresh start based on a new model. His idea was to construct an environment ensuring spaciousness, comfort, beauty, and order. To this end a generous town plan was designed around 24 town squares, an orderly commercial area and a series of ameliorative strictures: no slaves, Catholics, alcohol, or lawyers!
Although Oglethorpe’s credo ensured the city an outstanding spatial environment, few debtors were resettled and the weight of history soon overtook his ideals. Savannah’s natural harbor drew a motley bunch of immigrants and traders and it rapidly became a thriving port town, a major export center, and the principal city of the new colony.
Savannah was the state capital until 1783. During the Revolutionary War the English took Savannah in 1778 and held it until driven out of Georgia in 1782. The cotton gin, which led to the economic dominance of cotton in the South, was invented near Savannah, in 1793, by Eli Whitney. In 1819 the SS Savannah became the first steamship to cross an ocean when it sailed from Savannah to Liverpool.
During the Civil War, General Sherman ended his scorched-earth march across Georgia at Savannah, presenting the city as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln. It was spared the decimation handed out to so much of Georgia, since Confederate troops were evacuated before the arrival of the Union forces. With the decline of cotton after the war, the economy slumped, although this decline probably helped save the historic buildings from the bulldozer of progress.
Savannah is now the commercial center for a wider farming district, a manufacturing center, and a major tourist attraction. Visitors can enjoy the best weather, and the city’s gardens, in March and April, the most popular times to visit, so prices are higher and lodging is booked up in advance. The weather is good year-round except in summer, when it can get very humid. Since the mid-1950s a concerted and very successful effort has been made to restore old structures in the city’s original center, known as Old Savannah.
This beautiful historic area covers 21⁄2 square miles, making it the largest National Historic Landmark District in the nation. Taking in the riverfront, it features over 2,000 historic buildings of diverse architectural styles and 20 of the expansive, serene, Spanish moss-draped town squares included in the elegant 1733 town plan. It was on a bench in Chippewa Square that Forrest Gump related his life story. The picturesque and historic qualities of the town and area have also been captured in many other films, including Cape Fear and Glory.
The Victorian District features a distinguished array of late nineteenthcentury, two-story homes. The historic district is best explored on foot, but take care at night. Excellent walking tours are outlined at the Savannah Visitor Center. There are organized tours by foot, horse and carriage, riverboat, and bus. The most gracious lodging is in the restored historic homes of this area.
Savannah has a number of fine museums, including the Savannah History Museum, which is housed in a restored train shed from the old railway station; the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, which has a large collection of replica model boats covering the entirety of maritime history; and the Savannah Science Museum, which has a planetarium, an amphibian and reptile display, and hands-on exhibits relating to astronomy, natural history, and science.
The Massie Heritage Interpretation Center features a series of children’s exhibits that relate to Savannah, while a variety of model and toy trains of all eras can be found in the River Street Train Museum. The Colonial Park Cemetery, used from 1750 to 1853, holds some of the city’s earliest and distinguished residents. Some of the beautiful historic buildings are open. Green-Meldrim Home (1850s) was used as General Sherman’s headquarters in 1864, and there are two homes of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the US Girl Scouts. Literary buffs will enjoy the childhood homes of Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken.
At Mercer House, outrageous local personality Jim Williams shot and killed his lover Danny Hansford, which is written about in the popular book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Also near Savannah is Bethesda, built in 1740, the oldest orphanage in the nation. African-American heritage is featured at several venues, including the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, the Beach Institute, the King-Tisdell African-American Cultural Center, and many historic churches, particularly the First African Baptist Church. Founded in 1773 the latter claims to be the oldest continuously active, autonomously developed, African-American congregation in North America. The present church building, which dates from 1861, was the seat of the local Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. At the Second African Baptist Church, Dr Martin Luther King Jr first preached his “I Have a Dream” sermon and General Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation to the newly freed slaves in 1864.
Exploration beyond the historic district is best conducted by private vehicle although there is good bus service to many sites. The charming Bonaventure Cemetery contains the graves of Conrad Aiken and his parents, who both died in 1901 when Conrad Sr. killed his wife and himself. Songwriter Johnny Mercer is buried in the same plot as the Aiken parents. Three Civil War forts are nearby: Old Fort Jackson (1808), the Confederate headquarters; Fort Pulaski (1829-47); and Fort McAllister, a Confederate structure built in 1861-62. Its fall to a bayonet charge represented the culmination of General Sherman’s destructive march across Georgia.
Just over the river is the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, home to a large range of fauna including deer, otter, feral pigs, bald eagles, and alligators. It attracts hikers, naturalists, cyclists, and canoeists. Fishing and hunting is permitted but with strict conditions. South of Savannah are the Wormsloe State Historic Site and the Isle of Hope, with its carefully restored homes, fine views, oaks, and Spanish moss. Savannah has an international airport and bus and train service.