Off The Beaten Path: Columbus - From Mill Town to Uptown
We recently had the opportunity to visit Columbus, Georgia for a few days for a work conference. Having been to Columbus in the past, what they have done to transform their downtown (known locally as “Uptown Columbus”) is remarkable, and may serve as a model for other mid-sized cities in the South.
Uptown Columbus has reinvented itself in a major way
Founded in 1828, Columbus was one of the cities that helped build Georgia. Situated along the banks of the Chattahoochee River across from Phenix City (yes, that’s spelled correctly), Alabama, Columbus is located in a region known as the “fall line”, where the rolling, red dirt hills of Georgia’s Piedmont meet its Coastal Plain, the flat, rich farmland that was once part of the Atlantic Ocean (you could think of Columbus as an ancient version of Miami back when it was oceanfront). Where these two regions meet, elevation drops rapidly, a feature which made for a great place to find power for mills just as the industrial revolution was cranking into high gear. The City Mills and Eagle & Phenix Dams were built on the Chattahoochee in the area that is now the heart of the city, and for decades were an economic powerhouse for Columbus.
The Springer Opera House dates back to 1871 and still hosts performances. It is provides both a glimpse into Columbus’ gilded past as well as into its up-and-coming future.
When cotton was king and Columbus was booming, money flowed freely. We can still see signs of this period in grand buildings such as the Springer Opera House, which often served as a location to see world-class performances from acts traveling south to New Orleans. As was the case for many of the South’s old mill towns, though, eventually the gravy train dried up as technological advances changed the nature of manufacturing and the mills shut down one by one. While Columbus remained one of Georgia’s largest cities, its identity became linked almost exclusively to Fort Benning, a large Army base located south of town. It was known for many of the things that base towns around the country are known for: pawn shops, liquor stores, strip clubs, surplus depots…hardly the sort of thing that draws new people to a city that aren’t stationed there.
In the past decade, though, Columbus has experienced a revival, punctuated by the removal of the Eagle & Phenix and City Mills Dams in 2013. Instead of a meandering series of pools that were an afterthought for most residents of the city, the Chattahoochee River is now a thrilling whitewater course that attracts paddling enthusiasts from around the south and has created a booming outfitter business. We highly recommend that you watch the documentary “Chattahoochee Unplugged” if you get a chance to learn more about the removal of these dams from start to finish. It truly was a fascinating and visionary effort for city leaders to undertake.
The signature whitewater rapid on the Chattahoochee River sits at the former site of the Eagle & Phenix Dam. The building on the right side of the picture is currently being transformed into a restaurant with a view that will be hard to beat.
Beyond the banks of the river, this revitalization is obvious. Uptown Columbus is filled with bike shops, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and all of the other sorts of things that seem more in place with a cosmopolitan city than an old southern mill town. One of the old mills is being transformed into high-end loft apartments and condominiums that have far more charm than any new construction could.
The Phenix City Amphitheater hosts a summer concert series on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
Columbus’ renaissance has even started to spill over to the Alabama side of the river, with Phenix City building a riverfront amphitheater and a brand new hotel adjacent to a pedestrian bridge connecting to Columbus. Columbus provides a great example to cities facing similar problems as its own. Rather than chasing a quick fix to the problem, such as casino gambling, they instead decided to look out their back door and embrace what God and their forefathers had given them: a beautiful river and some wonderfully historic architecture that couldn’t be replicated today. This approach is clearly working for them. While in Columbus, we heard one of the leaders of this redevelopment describe that they wanted to become the “Boulder, Colorado of the South” with nearly unlimited opportunities for outdoor recreation and desirable dining and entertainment options, and it is clear from a stroll around Uptown Columbus that this isn’t an unobtainable goal.
We greatly enjoyed our visit, and we can’t wait to get back during warmer weather to make a run at the whitewater course. We hope to see you there!
The charm of uptown Columbus is unmistakable, and we think you’ll find it a great place to visit, whether you’ve never been or it has just been a while since you last visited.