Savannah was founded on the banks overlooking its namesake river, and there is a lot of history that goes along with it. In the early days maritime travel was the only option for long-distance movement, and the river was a vital connection to the Atlantic and places beyond. It’s no wonder that the river has been littered with forts and batteries ever since, and has been the scene of heated cannon battles between sailing ships and the shore, continuing all the way through the Civil War ironclads and blockade runners.
Today neither the river nor the shipping is the same; there are no more cannons, no more pirates. The river has been dredged and reshaped to accommodate the modern age of shipping, and behind it the Port of Savannah has grown to be the fourth largest port in the United States, including the “largest concentration of import distribution centers on the East Coast,” and is the second-busiest container exporter, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.
The river is integral to Savannah, to its history and it’s culture. River Street, paved in cobblestones and abandoned trolley tracks, still follows the old wharf line up past City Hall. City-run ferries shuttle between Waving Girl and City Hall landings on the Savannah side, and the convention center dock on Hutchinson Island, across the river.
And through it all runs the shipping traffic, bulk cargo carriers that stand taller than the eight-floor hotels that line the river, their decks stacked high and wide with intermodal units ready for distribution by rail and truck across North America.
You can feel the ships before you see them, a trembling vibration from their engines that carries through the water and land alike. You can’t say they glide by, because there’s nothing that graceful about them. They don’t glide. They power by, the river parting at their bows by sheer force. Sometimes they pass alone, and other times they’re flanked by one or more tugboats, dwarfed in size like Lilliputians by Gulliver.
In the week I spent there, I enjoyed many hours watching the river, and I saw boats of all sizes and configurations, from tiny outboard motorboats to power yachts to sailboats. But nothing matched the awe-inspiring size of the container ships, which seemed too large to possibly navigate the river with such apparent ease.
Even the arc of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, which leaps across the river to Hutchinson Island in a breathtaking span, seems insufficient to accommodate such vessels, and I watched several that appeared to barely clear the suspended roadway. Maybe it was just an optical illusion, my angle of view. But it looked like a close call.
As you can see, I couldn’t help photographing them, especially at sunrise. On its own the river is lovely, especially as you move away from the development of the city. But sometimes it’s the man made, industrial elements that really add interest, and this is one such case.
Someday I need to find a way to get aboard one and cruise downriver with it first-hand. Or aboard one of the tugboats, which are unexpectedly attractive ships, with their broad beam and overpowered diesels. Like the cargo ships, they’re working boats, out every morning and back every evening, guiding the commercial lifeline of the continent.