Discover the Resources of the Altamaha Watershed, One of GA’s 14 Major Watersheds

altamaha watershed
The Altamaha watershed. Photo by Altamaha Coastal Tours

The Altamaha watershed is one of Georgia’s 14 major watersheds. It is the largest river in Georgia, and a strong case can be made that it has been the most important from historical and economic points of views. More fresh water flows into the Atlantic from the Altamaha Basin than from any other river in the Southeastern United States. Read an Altamaha River Paddling Guide

See all of Georgia’s 14 Major Watersheds

Altamaha, Chattahoochee, Coosa, Flint, Ochlockonee, Ocmulgee, Oconee, Ogeechee, Satilla, Savannah, St Marys, Suwannee, Tallapoosa, Tennessee

An Introduction to the Mighty Altamaha Watershed

The Altamaha watershed is formed near Hazlehurst where the Ocumlgee and the Oconee rivers merge. It is the largest river in Georgia, and a strong case can be made that it has been the most important from historical and economic points of views. In the past, large rice and cotton plantations grew up along the Altamaha. Logs harvested on its banks were floated downstream to make Darien one of the most important lumber exporting ports in the world. Steamboats transported travelers and commerce up and down its length.

Throughout its history, the Altamaha has been threatened by hydrologic electric power projects, dams, barge canals, channelization and flood control schemes and water withdrawal plans – not to mention intensive lumbering. (One of the most significant reasons that Darien declined as a lumber port in the late 1800s was that they had simply cut down all the trees.) But thankfully, none of those schemes have succeeded, and the Altamaha today is recognized as one of the great environmental resources of not just Georgia but of the entire southeast region.

The Altamaha is an alluvial river. Characteristically, alluvial have their headwaters in the mountains or piedmont regions of the state. Flowing eastward, they collect sediment from the surrounding countryside and carry that burden to the coast. Alluvial rivers have a “flood plain,” a relatively flat area parallel to the river where the water goes when it overflows its banks. In the case of the Altamaha, the flood plain is from 3-to-12 miles wide. Increasingly, alluvial rivers and their flood plains are being recognized as one single ecological unit. During periods of high water, sediment and minerals overflow the banks of the river and are spread over the flood plain. At the same time, organic matter from the flood plain is picked up by the river and carried downstream, contributing to the estuary and the coastal marsh development.

More and more, the Altamaha, along with its flood plain, is viewed as one of the most important ecosystems in the region. Two-thirds of the shad caught commercially in Georgia come from the Altamaha. Eels taken from the river are shipped to Europe where they are considered a gourmet treat. Roe from river sturgeon is processed into fine caviar that is shipped all over the United States. The Altamaha is one of the most popular sport fishing regions in the state. It is rich in wildlife. Those who explore its creeks and swamps encounter beaver, mink, otter, turtles, alligators, snakes, wood ducks, wild turkey and an unbelievable variety of birds, such as the pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler, swallow-tailed kites and barred owl. Where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean, the rich waters of the Altamaha combine with the coastal marsh to produce one of the most productive environments known to man.

The Altamaha River System

The South and Yellow Rivers join to form the Ocmulgee at a location within Jackson Lake, a reservoir formed by the Lloyd Shoals Dam. The Alcovy River also flows into Lake Jackson. The headwaters of the Oconee River rise at the base of the Chattahoochee Ridge between Atlanta and a point 10 miles north-northeast of Gainesville. The North Oconee and Middle Oconee rivers join to form the Oconee about 6 miles south of Athens. The Apalachee River enters the Oconee from the northeast at Carey. Little River enters the Oconee at Lake Sinclair. From where the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers merge at a junction known locally as “The Forks” near Lumber City, the Altamaha flows 137 miles through a broad, relatively flat flood plain consisting of swamps, hardwoods and sand ridges, to the Atlantic Ocean. It is joined by the Ohoopee, a Coastal Plain “blackwater” river, south of Reidsville about 37 miles downstream from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee. At a point 22.8 miles above the mouth, the river divides into two branches, the Altamaha and the South Altamaha. These branches unite again and subdivide into three main streams: the Altamaha River, which empties into Altamaha Sound; the South Altamaha River, which empties into Buttermilk Sound; and the Darien River, which empties into Doboy Sound. Tidal effects extend about 39 miles upriver. This entire river system has a larger drainage basin than any other river system in Georgia – 14,200 square miles. More freshwater flows into the Atlantic Ocean from the Altamaha Basin than from any other river in the Southeastern United States.

How the Altamaha Got Its Name

The Altamaha was named for a Yamassee Indian Chief, Alatamaha. Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto first recorded the name in 1540.

River Protection

The Altamaha Riverkeeper is a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection, defense and restoration of Georgia’s biggest river – the Altamaha – including its tributaries the Ocmulgee, the Oconee and the Ohoopee. James Holland, a retired waterman, is the Riverkeeper and founder.

River Experiences in the Altamaha Watershed

Listed below are locations where you can see or experience the Altamaha watershed.

Fort King George State Historic Site

From 1721 to 1736, Fort King George, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, was the southern outpost of the British Empire in North America. A cypress blockhouse, barracks and palisaded earthen fort were constructed in 1721 by scoutmen led by Colonel John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell. For the next seven years, His Majesty’s Independent Company garrisoned the fort. They endured incredible hardships from disease, threats of Spanish and Indian attacks and a harsh, unfamiliar coastal environment. After the fort was abandoned, General James Oglethorpe brought Scottish Highlanders to the site in 1763. The settlement, called Darien, eventually became an important export center of lumber until 1925. Using old records and drawings, this 18th-century frontier fortification on the Altamaha River has been reconstructed for public tours. A museum and film cover the Guale Indians, the Santo Domingo de Talaje Mission, Fort King George, the Scots of Darien and 19th-century sawmilling when Darien was a major seaport. In addition to the fort replica, remains of three sawmills and tabby ruins are still visible.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The location of the fort at the mouth of the Altamaha illustrates how strategically important this river was in the defense of the Georgia coast in colonial times.

Fort Yargo State Park

This historic park features one of four log forts, or blockhouses, built in 1792 by settlers for protection against Creek and Cherokee Indians. Located between Atlanta and Athens, Fort Yargo offers a unique camping and fishing experience for families. Within the park is Will-A-Way Recreation Area, a facility specifically designed for special populations, with cottages, a group camp, food service facilities and picnic and fishing area.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: Fort Yargo is on the Apalachee River, which flows into the Oconee, which eventually merges with the Ocmulgee to form the Altamaha.

Gordonia-Alatamaha State Park

This area was under water for 20 million years. Now it is part of Georgia’s Coastal Plain region. Until about 1 million years ago, the park area resembled today’s big game region of Africa with elephants, bison, wolves and armadillos roaming the plains. American naturalist William Bartram explored this region during the 1700s, before the American Revolution, and discovered the Gordonia-Alatamaha, the tree for which the park is named.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The park is located in the Ohoopee River watershed. The “blackwater” Ohoopee joins the Altamaha some 100 miles west of where the Altamaha flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Hard Labor Creek State Park

A challenging 18-hole public golf course is one of the attractions of this park near the antebellum town of Madison in central Georgia. It is believed that the name “Hard Labor” was given to the area either by slaves who tilled the fields in summer or by Indians who found the stream difficult to ford.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: Hard Labor Creek flows into the Apalachee River just above its confluence with the Oconee. The Oconee merges with the Ocmulgee to form the Altamaha.

High Falls State Park

Illustrating how rivers were the birthplace of Georgia’s towns and industries, this site was a prosperous industrial town with several stores, a gristmill, cotton gin, blacksmith shop, shoe factory and hotel. High Falls became a ghost town in the 1880s when a major railroad bypassed it. Today, park visitors can enjoy the scenic waterfall on the Towaliga River and hike to the remaining gristmill foundation.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The Towaliga River flows into the Ocmulgee, which joins the Oconee to become the Altamaha.

Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site The culture of a forgotten empire comes alive at this historic rice plantation along the Altamaha River. Visitors can walk beneath live oaks to the antebellum home furnished with fine antiques, then look from the porch past magnolias and camellias to the marsh where rice once flourished. The museum features a model of a working rice plantation and a slide show about the life of planters and slaves. Around 1807, William Brailsford of Charleston began carving a rice plantation from the virgin cypress swamps along the Altamaha River. His son-in-law, James M. Troup, acquired additional land along the river. By the time Troup passed away, he owned 7,300 acres of land, 357 slaves and several homes. Until the outbreak of the Civil War, the plantation produced rice steadily. War, hurricanes and the lack of abundant labor led to the fall of the rice empire in 1915. Brailsford’s descendants converted the plantation into a dairy that distributed high-quality milk in Glynn County. Due to a combination of reasons, the dairy closed in 1942. In 1973, Ophelia Troup Dent willed the plantation to the state of Georgia.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The swampy “low country” surrounding the Altamaha and other coastal rivers provided the essential natural conditions that made the great Georgia and South Carolina rice plantations possible.

Indian Springs State Park

The Creek Indians used these springs for centuries to heal the sick and impart extra vigor to the well. During the 1800s, this area was a bustling resort town. Today, visitors can still sample the spring water while enjoying the park’s cottages, camping, swimming, fishing and boating. Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many structures within the park during the Great Depression.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: Indian Springs is on Big Sandy Creek, which flows into the Ocmulgee River just north of the Towaliga River (see High Falls State Park). The Ocmulgee merges with the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site

This middle Georgia plantation, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, consists of 20 buildings dating between 1847 and 1945. It has one of the largest and most complete collections of original family artifacts from this time period in Georgia. In the 1840s, John Fitz Jarrell built the plantation’s first dwelling. Despite wars (including a raid by Gen. William Sherman’s army), economic depression, soil erosion and cotton boll weevils, the family has remained on the land of “red hills and stones” for more than 140 years. Distinctively colored with age, the original dwelling and other structures still stand. Among the buildings, machines and tools once used by the Jarrells are a three-story barn, smokehouses, wheat houses, a cane press, 1895 dwelling, steam-powered cotton gin, gristmill, sawmill, shingle mill, syrup mill and planer. Visitors can tour the 1847 plantation house, carpenter shop, blacksmith shop and other buildings. Inside the 1847 house, visitors will see original furnishings, including looms, spinning wheels, a baby cradle and a cobbler’s bench – many of which were built by family members. During seasonal programs, spinning, weaving, woodstove cooking, blacksmithing and other skills are demonstrated.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The original plantation land, at one time 1,000 acres, bordered the Ocmulgee River, which joins the Oconee near Hazlehurst to form the Altamaha. The Jarrell Plantation is located above the Fall Line shoals at Macon, making it difficult, if not impossible, to use the river to transport harvested crops downriver, an advantage the farm would have enjoyed had it been located below the Fall Line. The Jarrells used small flat-bottomed bateaux for fishing and light transportation. Combine a visit to this site with a trip to Indian Springs and High Falls, other nearby state parks with important watershed connections.

Little Ocmulgee State Park and Lodge

Landowners along the Little Ocmulgee River began donating land for this state park in 1935. With the help of residents, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Park Service, roads, buildings and a dam were built and opened to the public in 1940.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: The Little Ocmulgee River joins the Ocmulgee River just upstream of where the Ocmulgee joins the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows 137 miles to the Atlantic.

Panola Mountain State Conservation Park

This state park was created to protect a 100-acre granite monadnock (mountain) often compared to Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Unlike its northern neighbor, Panola Mountain still shelters rare plants and animals of the Piedmont region. Visitors may explore nature on their own, or they may join park staff for nature programs and guided hikes into the conservation area. Due to its delicate ecological features, Panola Mountain was designated a National Natural Landmark.

The Altamaha Watershed Connection: Rainfall on Panola Mountain flows into the South River, which joins the Ocmulgee River at Lake Jackson and, eventually, combines with the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows to the Atlantic.

 

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